THE BLOG
10/26/2012 05:04 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

First Nighter: Who's Afraid of Albee's Virginia Woolf 50 Years On?

Will everyone who saw the original production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? please raise his or her hand? Just what I expected: Not that many hand-raisers left to acknowledge their presence at an historic theater event unforgettably starring Ute Hagen, Arthur Hill, George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon and directed by Alan Schneider.

I only ask because those of us who were there find it difficult to dismiss the occasion from our minds. That is, we keep it present if we're not members of the Pulitzer Prize board, who denied the award to the work and have thus forever stained their annual choices.

By the way, full disclosure: The scathing drama was the first Broadway production I saw when I moved to Manhattan and, in my innocence, concluded that from then on New York theater-going was going to be a glorious sequence of equally demanding and gratifying experiences

Thus those of us on the hallowed site back in that day need to be forgiven if we indulge in odious comparisons when a new interpretation heaves into view. On the other hand, I also think we deserve to be recognized as open-minded enough to exercise some degree of objectivity. And we Manhattan observers are now asked to do as much again with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company undertaking -- featuring Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks and directed by Pam MacKinnon -- which is in town and at the Booth after a first stop in Chicago and a second in Washington, D.C.

But it may also be likely -- and farther on I'll argue it -- that early advocates have an interesting, perhaps even revelatory, perspective in which to assess the masterpiece. This is in large measure from the standpoint of what we knew about playwright Albee then and what we know today. (N.B.: I don't think "masterpiece" is too strong a word, since only Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and probably Tony Kushner's Angels in America can be ranked as equals or near equals to the best examples of the usually highest-ranked 20th-century American playwrights Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.)

Right off, it's necessary to say that Letts's performance is the shining, shocking highlight of the newest revival -- during which destructively witty college-campus denizens George (Letts) and Martha (Morton) attack each other as well as charge after wee-hours younger guests Nick (Dirks) and Honey (Coon) for what at first glance appears to be the sheer hell of it.

For possibly the first time in any run-through of Albee's ferocious script, George looks from beginning to end to have the upper hand in the domestic battle of the sexes. Letts's performance -- he's like a lion caged far too long -- runs the gamut of frustrated emotions and then runs it back. Incidentally, he's the only one during the long night's journey into day who, as required by Albee, picks up one of the books Todd Rosenthal has loaded on a set that's Victorian dark-wood-and-Tiffany-accoutrements and makes Martha's opening "What a dump!" hilariously accurate.

But whereas Letts's take on George -- obviously hammered into shape with director MacKinnon -- erases the memory of all other Georges I've seen, Morton's approach to Martha -- also clearly fashioned with MacKinnon -- seems oddly muted. This constantly imbibing Martha hardly disappears from the action, but she also doesn't register as the monster menace she's written to be. She's almost civil throughout. She's definitely reasonable at the outset. Returning from a campus party thrown by her school-head father, she's sober as a judge, every hair in place. As a result, Morton's Martha had me repeatedly superimposing Hagen's performance on hers.

Constantly assaulted and/or put-the-moves-on by the troubled middle-aged couple. Nick, as played by Dirks, and the hysterical (it comes out she's had an hysterical pregnancy) Honey, as played by Coon, fit neatly into Albee's plan for the superficially happy but ultimately disturbed duo. Yet, scorching as so much of the Steppenwolf version is, something irretrievable undercuts it when Martha is less threatening as played than as written.

When, for instance, she declares to George that she wears the pants in the family -- we're meant to believe it -- it's apparent he has been wearing those threadbare trousers this outing. When Nick complains to George -- in what turns out to be the revival's toughest-minded sequence -- that George and Martha fight like animals, the effect too often has been closer to their tussling like cubs. As a result, this may be the only time I've ever watched the opus unfold without wondering why Nick doesn't grab Honey by the hand early on and split the crazy scene. MacKinnon and Morton -- less than Letts -- don't provide sufficient impetus. That, of course, could be deemed a plus.

Still, the play is there. The text is there in what is now billed as Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A longtime admirer can watch it and be impelled to think about it and where and why it sprang from Albee's psyche. The undertaking is, of course, one that gleeful critic-baiting Albee could (would? will?) find repugnant. Nevertheless! When the play bowed 50 Octobers ago, Albee had begun to make an attention-grabbing name for himself, but not that much had been reported about his background as the adopted son of Albee-theater-circuit parents.

More than that, no one attending the 1962 straight-play hit -- depicting an infertile, self-absorbed couple who (spoiler alert from here on) quarrel over a 21-year-old son they claim to have -- could predict the author would compulsively take on as a theme cold-hearted, affluent parents and the relationships with their children. Now we know, for instance, that Albee has even penned one work bluntly titled The Play About the Baby.

So let's just say a seasoned theater-goer is able to notice in hindsight -- granted, only speculatively -- that Albee is obsessed with producing plays in which right and wrong reasons for keeping a challenged marriage together are set forth in verbal acid. Well, few of us aren't aware of troubled unions where the partners decide bringing a child into their world is the way to fix whatever's wrong. But what about a marriage where the couple can't conceive and choose not to adopt? Mightn't they imagine a child? Mightn't they need the kind of theatrically stormy night Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presents to face up to their gross, debilitating error?

Embroidering on this logic five decades on, mightn't a patron inquire if Albee isn't transmuting his anguish as the adopted son of unresponsive parents into this snarling, gnarling George and Martha, who become the progenitors, as it were, of so many of his subsequent pieces?

Just asking.