The audience seemed primed for camp, eager to buckle up and relive the roaring-lion performances Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton gave in their 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's 1963 play. There were hints of this in the lobby—an unusual number of couples, gay and straight, with cocktail complexions and tobacco coughs who looked as if they'd stumbled there from a piano bar in Palm Springs—but the proof was in their laughter.
They began with gleeful cackles as George (R. Hamilton Wright) and Martha (Pamela Reed) traded their early, familiar barbs. (George: "Do you want me to go around all night braying at everybody, the way you do?" Martha [braying]: "I DON'T BRAY!") But then, as the horror of their domestic dysfunction came into full bloom, each burst of laughter seemed to separate like two-part harmony: some higher and more nervous (as if they hadn't realized what they were in for), some lower and more sardonic (as if they appreciated the play kicking into high gear). The bitter comedy of this production, directed by Braden Abraham, feels much more brutal than the film.
George is an aging history professor married to the harridan daughter of the university's president. The two drink heavily, banter viciously, and hate themselves and everyone else. And who can blame them? Their college town of big egos, tiny achievements, and the narcissism of small differences sounds like a stultifying nightmare. One night, Martha invites a young academic couple (the cocky and sporty Nick and his naive wife, Honey) over for late-night drinks after a faculty party. The result is a symphony of cruel wit in real time, starting after 2 a.m. and ending in a heap of smoldering rubble around 6 a.m. As Nick describes the situation: "I'm tired, I've been drinking since nine o'clock, my wife is vomiting, there's been a lot of screaming going on around here," and that's before the play is halfway over. Yet we enjoy it, not least because Albee is a master of perspective. At some moments, he allows us to feel like George and Martha, laughing at the young, smug idiocy of their guests. At others, we're with Nick and Honey, looking aghast at the towering awfulness of their hosts.
Matthew Smucker's set design is diabolically and deceptively tense. He's assembled a disheveled academic home circa 1960—books everywhere, African and Asian artifacts, abstract-expressionist paintings—but has built it so we're not looking toward the traditional flat wall, but sitting in one corner of the room looking into the V of the opposite corner. Like the play, the set seems sloppy and homey at first, before you realize it's coming right at your head.
The men are fine (Wright as George is a little too nebbishy, Aaron Blakely as Nick is a little too self-aware), but the women are excellent. Reed plays Martha as a wounded tigress, masking a deep well of hurt and need beneath a tornado of anger, derision, and bloody-colored nail polish—and she doesn't succumb to the temptation of chewing the scenery. She brays when braying is called for, but cuts even more deeply in moments of quiet contempt, as when she's telling a story about her father teaching the faculty to box during WWII, and Nick cuts in to explain why: "It was probably more the principle of the thing." Martha's icy, bitter response—"No kidding"—might be the production's most chilling moment. Amy Hill gives surprising depth to the ditzy, drunken Honey. This production is a bracing reminder of why Virginia Woolf, and its long night's journey into day, continues to haunt us.