‘Familiar stories are the best.” So suggests a wistfully inebriated Honey (Rose Roberts), murmuring her barely conscious remark at a pivotal point in Edward Albee’s brutally brilliant Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Whatever familiarity you might have with the play, and with George and Martha and Honey and Nick—the funny and ferocious couples whose relationships unravel spectacularly in this 1962 Tony winner—you’d be well advised to leave your expectations (and past disappointments) at the door of Main Stage West. That’s where director David Lear and an excellent cast have mixed up a dry and dirty, perfectly poured staging of Albee’s masterpiece, a caustic excoriation of modern marriage and the deadly addictiveness of illusion and deceit.
Notoriously difficult to stage, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has nothing to do with the titular author, whose name only appears here in references to a joke made earlier in the evening—a joke we never hear ourselves. George (a sensational Peter Downey) is a middling history professor, and his wife, Martha (Sandra Ish, marvelous), resents him for his lack of academic ambition. One morning, following a lengthy faculty dinner, George and Martha invite another couple over for drinks. Nick (John Browning, strong in a difficult role) is a new biology professor, and his wife, Honey (Roberts), well, Honey has a habit of throwing up when things become too “intense.”
As George and Martha callously use these wide-eyed newbies as ammunition in their bitter, decades-long battle of disappointment and regret, Lear masterfully keeps the tone light, recognizing that the escalating cruelty of these angry people’s witty but pain-fueled words works best when delivered as if it’s all actually hilarious—which it frequently is.
The Main Stage production includes Ish’s priceless expression when Honey, having just arrived with Nick, places a potted Venus flytrap in her hand as a “hostess gift.” And words cannot describe Roberts’ jaw-dropping brilliance when Honey launches an improvised dance that includes elements of ballet, hand-jive and a mime stuck in a box.
The brilliance of Albee’s script, and this razor-sharp interpretation, lies in the awareness that beautiful truths can be found even among people as vile and hateful as these.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★½