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The Big Bad Woolf 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? isn't like other great plays; you can't do it half-well and come up with an OK production. Albee taps such a potent, flowing current of anger in his script about two ordinary college-faculty types that launching a production without wholehearted performances in the lead roles is like jumping off a cliff without canvas on your hang glider. The Actors Theater, happily, does better than that. In the group's so-called Summer Annual American Classic Production, Chris Phillips and Catherine Castellanos play George and Martha with a murderous mutual rage that doesn't let up for three hours. It's a feat of stamina, never mind acting ability.

The old film of Virginia Woolf with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton tends to dominate stage versions of the play the way Vanya on 42nd Street has left its mark on Chekhov. How can you not imitate it? The movie's too well-known, and too definitive. Director Jean Shelton seems to have assigned it as homework to her cast. Phillips has the right shape, and the right mannerisms, for a Burton-like George; Castellanos also has the right look and voice to play a Taylor-like Martha.

Of course it might be nice to see a successful production done using a different formula, but you take what you can get, and this Virginia Woolf is a nightmare. George and Martha live in a shabby-genteel house in New Carthage, a small town where George slaves as a history professor and Martha seems to thrive on manipulating campus politics as a faculty wife and daughter of the college president. Their marriage has lapsed into loveless hectoring, in which the Machiavellian power games of any relationship have been laid bare as a skeleton. Martha shrieks at, browbeats, and insults George for such impossible shortcomings as not knowing the name of a film; George slinks around, grumbles, and plots his passive revenge. They drink like fish. And they're not shy about hollering at each other in front of company. When a young faculty couple visits for a nightcap (and, Martha seems to hope, a little wife-swapping), they become pawns in George and Martha's war.

Albee's vision of college-town intellectuals is like John Cheever's vision of the Connecticut suburbs, or Philip Roth's attacks on Newark: Virginia Woolf belongs to the general assault on faux respectability launched by American writers in the '50s and '60s. Illusion, of course, is a theme; the interesting part is that Martha and George believe they're disillusioned. George tells Nick, his young guest, how to get ahead: "You can take over all the courses you want to, and get as much of the young elite together in the gymnasium as you like, but until you start plowing pertinent wives, you aren't really working."

Martha is just as shameless and crass; she's aware, in fact, of being a pertinent wife. But Martha and George also have a funny habit of shouting past each other, at people who don't seem to exist. They're both blinkered, for all their dreary cynicism. As George, Chris Phillips seems to have aged 10 years; he wears disheveled clothes and droops around the living room, a sodden alcoholic creature. His mannerisms are perfect: The way he gapes at Nick and Honey through his glasses on a string, the way he smirks regretfully, the way he turns into a shrewish bat when Martha pushes him too hard. And Catherine Castellanos throws herself into Martha -- loud, large, and braying -- with enough relish to make her breakdown at the end a moment of real catharsis. It's good, good theater.

The only flaws are limp performances by Paul D'Addario and Jennifer Welch in the roles of Nick and Honey. D'Addario line-reads at first, but improves when Nick gets angry, while Welch, who needs to be early '60s proper, hasn't quite felt her way into the manners of another time. Biz Duncan and Steve Coleman have built an excellent set, with dusty floorboards, dingy velvet drapes, and downscale furniture that suggests a kind of junkyard of bourgeois comfort. George and Martha even have an old cabinet stereo and a samovar. (What do they want with a samovar?) And the liquor cart is suitably used-looking. Two years ago, Phillips and Castellanos played memorable roles in another three-hour American Classic at the Actors Theater -- Night of the Iguana -- which to me was a high point for the company, an example of what it can do. The production was epic -- long, high-strung, and powerful (in spite of a couple of flaws). So is Virginia Woolf. It's good to see the Actors Theater back in form.


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