Unusual “Virginia Woolf” @ Boston’s Lyric Stage

January 23, 2017

MSH_0233cDan Whelton, Erica Spyres, Paula Plum, Steven Barkhimer (l. to r.).

Photo by Nile Hawver.

The old gray Martha ain’t what she used to be. After 55 years, the late Edward Albee’s world-famous tragicomedy of delusion and dependency, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” isn’t the same barnburner that inflamed critics and supporters alike at its first premiere. That doesn’t mean it still can’t make for a stimulating and entertaining evening, which it does in the current revival at Boston’s Lyric Stage Company. But it does mean that certain facts have to be faced.

None of the controversial factors that cost the play the 1962 Pulitzer—its revelling in the savage gamesmanship of troubled marriage, and its harsh language—would cause any alarm in a modern theater audience, let alone a distinguished prize jury. (Late in life, Albee even added some au courant f-bombs, though to very little effect.) As for the play’s central mystery, audiences were initially puzzled and frustrated by George and Martha’s son, but most now understand him perfectly clearly, having witnessed so many more confounding theatrical conceits over the years.

I think director Scott Edmiston understands that the play isn’t going to be perceived as the titanic Walpurgisnacht it once was, because he’s found some alternative approaches to mine it for new gold. Such approaches come at a cost—every approach to every play comes at a cost—but Edmiston’s efforts are ingenious and worth noting.

For one thing, he’s paced it remarkably swiftly; it comes in at 2:45, only slightly longer than the 1966 movie, which shaved an enormous amount of dialogue and action to bring it down in length. (The familiarity of the film version is of course another challenge to the play’s remaining alive and surprising.) Also, this Boston revival emphasizes the comedy of the piece, more than I’ve ever seen in a dozen previous productions. This George (Steven Barkheimer) and Martha (Paula Plum) are a well-tuned vaudeville act whose routines seem designed more to tickle than to wound, and which are often played out front as if to a wider audience beyond late-nite faculty guests Nick (Dan Whelton) and Honey (Erica Spyres).

The jokes still land, in part because Albee’s writing remains moment-by-moment vital, but mostly because the leads are expert comedians. Barkheimer is a roly-poly nebbish of an academic who has swallowed and digested most of his pain long ago, while Plum’s Martha is more of a neighborhood scandal than a grieving earth-mother. Gay and flirtatious, she would easily fit into any troupe of Real Housewives, and might even persuade them to make nice. Together, Plum and Barkhimer offer an engaging portrait of a couple whose battles are a cheerful deflection mechanism. (Though as one might expect, their late-inning challenge of “Total war?”/“Total” carries little weight.)

Most significantly, Edmiston and his team have tossed naturalism out the window. No effort is made to chart a believable, beat-by-beat arc of late night drinking and debauchery; we don’t get the highs and lows, the quantum shifts in rhythm and mood we would expect in a realistic portrayal. One gets a sense that this quartet has been directed to keep their wits about them, so that their wit can flourish.

At the same time, there’s only a minimum of fussy, real-life stage business, little fooling around with props as the characters prowl around Janie E. Howland’s intimate, three-quarter set. Throughout the performance, lighting designer Karen Perlow frames key moments in frankly theatrical effects which have no relationship to any actual living-room fixtures. Then, after the big third act “reveal,” she and Howland collaborate in some final expressionistic touches which purists, I’m sure, will find bogus and vulgar, but I rather welcomed as an interesting literalization of Albee’s existential worldview. It’s different, anyway.

Spyres and Whelton, though capable and charismatic, are two partial casualties of Edmiston’s directorial approach. Spyres must remain largely earthbound where most Honeys, unused to strong spirits, go wild in extravagant flights of liberation. As for Nick, the character is already written with a series of shifts from pugnacity to passivity and back again, tough for any actor to motivate and even more so when he can’t use extremes of drunkenness to justify the transitions. And since Nick is a notably humorless fellow anyway, Whelton is really up against it with the comics who rule this roost. In this “Virginia Woolf,” more than in other productions, Nick and Honey are required to be second bananas, sideshow attractions to the George and Martha circus in the center ring.

Running through Feb. 12 at the Lyric Stage of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston. lyricstage.com.


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