Even people who haven’t seen Edward Albee’s first Broadway production, 1962’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, know that it features a fighting couple named George and Martha. They probably know there’s a second, younger couple, who gets caught up in a tornado of beastliness. What’s less recognized is how extremely funny the script is—that is, until it’s not.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a scathing indictment of marriage and academia, chock full of wordplay and humor. Although undeniably a period piece, it retains its ability to entertain and shock even after six decades of social change. Comedy and tragedy converge uniquely in the play’s depiction of aging, traditional gender roles and the long-term effects of poor choices.
At three hours-plus (with two intermissions), Virginia Woolf, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse, is immersive and riveting. A talented cast at the top of their collective game brilliantly play off each other, building resentments, abusing vulnerabilities and forever altering the trajectories of their lives.
The perfectly timed repartee flows as abundantly as the booze, as glasses are filled, refilled, and occasionally shattered. The comic timing of all actors, especially Zachary Quinto as George and Aimee Carrero as Honey, keeps things thrilling, while the pathos of Calista Flockhart as Martha infuses the quartet like a red tide. Graham Philips as Nick builds from disapproval to disgust to anger at how he’s been used.
In a deep and darkly brooding set by Wilson Chin, Flockhart veers from charming to a ferocious bullseye-seeking arrow. Quinto morphs from henpecked sling to merciless aggressor. Twenty-somethings Honey and Nick are out of their league; George and Martha have spent decades honing their dance. The slings and arrows grow more outrageous as power shifts and daybreak threatens.
I found myself wanting DVR functions: Wait, can I hear that again? OMG, what did they just do? Let me pause for a minute and let that sink in. Nope. Good old-fashioned live theater is ephemeral but etches deeply. When brilliant actors, led by a superb director (Gordon Greenberg) tackle a classically difficult script, you don’t need a hard drive to store the memories.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays on the main stage at the Geffen through May 29 (it’s been extended). Showtimes are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00pm and 7:00pm; tickets are $39-149. Parking in the underground lot just to the west costs $5. Proof of up-to-date COVID-19 vaccination status and mask-wearing are required.