Tracy Letts Puts His Stamp on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”

Writer, actor and Pulitzer Prize winner, Tracy Letts, started his career as an actor at age 20, working at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. So one might call it quite fitting that he would round out his career with another wolf; Virginia. Tracy Letts is starring in the celebrated account of distinctly American dysfunction, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which opened Saturday at the Booth Theatre. While some at Broadway’s Booth Theatre still recalled the original 1962 production, others (including the 30-year-old daughter of a friend, who was my guest) knew very little about it beyond its title and reputation. But one thing’s for sure, they won’t forget the performance of Letts, as he puts his stamp on the celebrated play.

The world has changed greatly since Albee gave us this nightmarish exorcism of marital dysfunction as played out on a small New England college campus. Divorce has certainly become more prevalent, childlessness is no longer a mark of failure and women depend far less on the reflected glory of their mates. Yet the ability of people to simultaneously love and wound each other has remained constant. And for Albee, the recurring question is: What brought them to that terrible tension point?

Time is of the essence on many fronts when the play in question is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Edward Albee’s brutal anatomy of two marriages — one a middle-age couple in deep and enduring torment, the other an already dysfunctional pair of late twenty something. And director Pam MacKinnon’s incendiary Steppenwolf Theatre revival, which began life in Chicago in late 2010 and opened Saturday night in New York in the most subtly tweaked remount (on the precise 50th anniversary of the play’s Broadway debut), could not be more ideally suited to marking both the historic moment and the power of this play to morph over the decades.

George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton), the ferociously embattled, profoundly codependent couple at the core of Albee’s drama, have been married for 23 years. The daughter of the powerful college president, Martha believed George, a history teacher a number of years younger than she, might well be heir apparent to her father. But he proved entirely unsuited for that role, and now, the alcohol-swilling, sexually thwarted Martha cannot forgive him for his “failure,” and more crucially for his unflagging ability to love and endure her. The couple’s inability to have a child created other bonds, as well as building on bitterness. And by now, their epic battles have evolved into a highly developed emotional blood sport that seems to have no threshold of pain.

One of the thrills of this production is that each combatant can take as much as they give (Letts’ George is far from a wimp), with the shared secret of an absent son the most potentially deadly weapon in their arsenal. (For Albee, an adopted child who had a very difficult relationship with his adoptive parents, the parent and child equation is always present in some way, shape or form.)

Entering into George and Martha’s hellish home for a nightcap (and set designer Todd Rosenthal has meticulously conjured Martha’s unkempt house) is the new couple on campus: Nick (Madison Dirks), a handsome, ambitious young biology professor, and his surprisingly mousy (but monied) wife, Honey (Carrie Coon). They are in many ways the reverse image of George and Martha, yet seem destined for a similar fate.

Like George and Martha, Letts and Morton have developed a stunning theatrical marriage of immense intensity and precision-tuned responses over many years and much collaboration, and this enables them to be thrillingly unpredictable and uncannily free within the confines of this epic yet intimate play. The two actors enter the domestic boxing ring of George and Martha’s living room and give us a fight to near-death. It takes three hours before they drain all the rage, resentment, disappointment and sense of impotence that have festered in their uncivil civil war for more than two decades. And the release is harrowing to witness.

Letts is so blisteringly good — so incisive in every shift of mood and strategy and cuttingly comic barb — that there is a real danger he might be derailed from playwriting by an onslaught of acting offers. Morton, who already showed what she is made of in Letts’ “August: Osage County,” finds a way to be every bit as vulnerable as she is corrosive and monstrous, and it is devastating. Eight performances a week is impossible to comprehend.

Dirks is a terrific catalyst for Martha’s lust, but he is even better as the seemingly proper go-getter who can give as good as he gets with George. The sparing of the two men is razor-sharp and deliciously invective-filled. (Their momentary mishap with a table lamp was handled to perfection.) And Coon, who spends much of the evening, curled in a fetal position after drinking and wrenching too much, hits every beat with just the right troubled quirkiness.

Albee, 84 and frail from recent heart surgery, smiled broadly as he came on stage to take a bow Saturday. He knows that “Virginia Woolf” is the play that will forever be synonymous with his name, and he could not have hoped for a more incisive rendering of it. He made it clear he understood that.

“It’s more of a football game than a play,” Letts told Broadway.com. “It’s very exciting. It’s part of our cultural heritage now, this play, so it deserves to be celebrated. It deserves to be seen again and again and again.

In the end, it is Letts and Morton who put their stamp on the play — and just about manages to eclipse the memory of the fine Broadway revival starring Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner just seven years ago. In Letts’ and Morton’s capable hands, George and Martha emerge as historic icons, America’s first couple of passive-aggressive dysfunction.

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