“You just never know about anyone else’s marriage, including your own.” I remember hearing this quote attributed to Nora Ephron on “The View” years ago, though for the life of me I can’t confirm it now; heck, I’ve probably badly paraphrased it. Still, the sentiment of that statement stayed with me, and it comes to mind now after seeing Standing Room Only’s solid production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 1962 Edward Albee play about the games a married couple play with (and on) each other that are misunderstood by their young guests in the wee hours of a Sunday morning after a party.
Gail Griffith is Martha, the loud and brash daughter of the head of the college at which her husband teaches. She laughs and drinks and curses a lot, and Ms. Griffith is up to the challenge. It can’t be easy to be so thoroughly difficult, so caustic and in-your-face, but you wouldn’t know it to see how Ms. Griffith performs in the role. Her Martha isn’t all harridan as the part is often played, but she’s far from sweet also; there is a deep pain at the heart of her Martha, and her acting out is her way of dealing with it.
Greg Hoffman is Martha’s husband, George, playing him alternately as submissive and then sneakily dominant. He is an associate professor in the history department, often finding himself the butt of Martha’s one-liners as he dotes on her. Mr. Hoffman is fine in the part though he sometimes speeds through his lines quickly during the most intense scenes, which perhaps contributed to a happy accident at the performance I attended. There is a scene in act one where George and Nick are alone and asking each other questions. “How many kids do you have?” asked Nick, to which Mr. Hoffman said, “That’s for you to know and me to find out.” The correct line is, “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” but the pronoun slip-up during a scene all about how George is finding out information about Nick’s life to use against him is quite telling and clever. Mr. Hoffman owned the altered line and marched on with confidence; it may not be what Albee wrote, but it fit with the intention of the moment.
Anthony Guerrini plays Nick, the studly new professor in the biology department, and Amy Rittburger is his giggly wife, Honey. They have the misfortune of arriving at George and Martha’s home and becoming a part of their vicious interactions. Mr. Guerrini comes off as uneasy, which works for the part in some ways, eventually relaxing into it during the second act. Nick isn’t a particularly likable character, and it feels like maybe Mr. Guerrini is tentative in showing that, like he is afraid to not be liked on stage. Ms. Rittberger has the least to do in the underwritten part of Honey, but she’s great at reacting to what is going on around her. There were many times during the performance when I would glance back at her and to see how she was right there in the moment, listening and present even if she had nothing to say. Though Honey’s breakdown in the third act is played more like she is suffering from physical pain (Ms. Rittberger grabs her stomach and rocks on her knees) rather than the pain of embarrassment and betrayal (which is the reason for her outburst), Ms. Rittberger makes an impact in a part lesser actresses might sleep through.
Andrew Weibel’s set for George and Martha’s living room looks and feels just right, vintage turntable console, drab artwork, stained walls, and worn chairs and couch blending right in. It’s easy to suspend disbelief and become involved in the play with such an accurate, lived-in backdrop. As a fan of the 1966 Academy Award-winning Mike Nichols film and having listened many times to the original Broadway cast recording (it was one of the rare plays recorded in its entirety for LP), I was surprised and delighted to discover so many more moments in this edition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this being a version which Mr. Albee has revised and expanded over the years. The language is more coarse than what they could probably get away with on stage or in film back in the ’60s, but it doesn’t come off as gratuitous; I believe this is just how these inebriated characters would talk to each other, four-letter words and all.
Don’t bother trying to figure out the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as it is a punchline to a joke we didn’t hear which was said at the party earlier in the night that apparently was quite amusing to middle-aged couple, George and Martha, as well as their young guests, Nick and Honey. When the title is sung it isn’t funny to us in the audience because we don’t know the joke or its context, the same conundrum faced by Nick and Honey as they see Martha and George argue, attack, and degrade each other. It’s like Martha and George have their own inside joke for which we only see the punchline in the form of barbs and pain.
Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a modern classic, and this production has a lot going for it. With three acts and two intermissions, it can seem like quite a daunting way to spend three hours, but it ends up being anything but; there is a lot to take in, and it all flows extremely well. While the film adaptation is terrific, it isn’t the final word on this piece; Standing Room Only brings electricity to Mr. Albee’s prose with intensity and a pretty good cast willing to go the distance.
*** out of ****
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues through to February 7th in the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org