We usually think of productions of
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as defined by the diva-actress playing Martha. And certainly the new Broadway revival gets its star power from Ms. Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner, who’s gotten old and wide-hipped enough to play Edward Albee’s famously boozy, sexually rapacious professor’s wife. But the big news of the production is Bill Irwin’s revelatory performance as George.
Although he’s won kudos as a dramatic actor in Brecht and Beckett, Irwin is best-known as a New Vaudevillean clown, and it’s fascinating to watch him apply his wizardly physical prowess to express George’s collapsed, passive-aggressive demeanor. He has a sunny, placid Norman Rockwell face, but he can turn and pounce as swiftly as a rattlesnake. For all of Martha’s braying and taunting the younger couple (superbly played by David Harbour and Mireille Enos) they’ve dragged home from a faculty party, the play is really dominated by the disarming, relentless word-games through which George lays traps for the others. Irwin’s performance makes us see the character’s monumental self-hatred and the fierce control he exerts even while pretending to be helpless.
A less seasoned stage performer, Turner tends to be somewhat monotonous. Yet she unexpectedly moved me in the third act, especially the way she betrays Martha’s exhaustion with the game-playing that has fueled their marriage. When the play first shocked audiences in 1961, some critics absurdly accused Albee of writing about gay couples in disguise, as if only fags could treat each other this brutally. (The playwright, who was living with Terrence McNally at the time he wrote
Virginia Woolf, vehemently and rightly denounced this homophobic assertion.) Four decades of heterosexual honesty later, Albee’s play more than ever looks like a wise and savagely powerful portrait of human connection.
The Advocate, May 10, 2005