Monday, November 5, 2012

Revivals, Part II: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Heiress

Tracy Letts, Carrie Coon, Amy Morton & Madison Dirks in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

It’s unlikely that anyone will mount a better production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than the one Pam McKinnon has staged for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which is now playing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. It’s splendidly acted – especially by Tracy Letts in the role of George – and beautifully paced. I think, though, that you can get only so far with Edward Albee’s play before invention runs out and you’re stuck with those self-conscious dramatic arias and the symbolism that’s strewn across the text like boulders you can neither heave out of the way nor leap over. In the half-century since its original Broadway appearance, Virginia Woolf has been considered a classic American play – a withering depiction of a marriage rendered in a modified absurdist style by a satirist whose specialty is the marital habits of middle-aged American WASPs. Albee’s language is often clever and sometimes hilarious, and he’s provided a major workout for the two leading actors. But I’ve never bought this sniping, game-playing, co-dependent couple, the history prof George and Martha, the college president’s daughter, as real partners. I’ve never bought their desperate fiction about the son they could never really have, or the fact that Nick and Honey, the young faculty newcomer and his wife Martha invites for drinks in the wee hours of the morning – after a party her father has thrown breaks up – don’t get up and leave as soon as the insults start flying.

I don’t have any trouble believing that, in Albee’s one-act The Zoo Story, the force of Jerry’s personality could pin the retiring bookworm Peter to the Central Park bench where Jerry ends up impaling himself on the knife he’s stuck in Peter’s hand. That play strikes me as a brilliantly accomplished piece of American absurdism, like LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman (where the battleground is a Manhattan subway car and the warriors are a young black intellectual and a white seductress). But Albee’s ambitions are broader and deeper in Virginia Woolf and they’re beyond his – possibly anyone’s – scope . He wants us to believe that George and Martha’s is an authentic marriage, played out against a realist environment (a household on the outskirts of a small New England college), yet those long, embroidered speeches obviously don’t operate on any sort of realist plane, so whenever one of the characters launches into one, we’re meant to read it purely on the level of symbolism and forget that no one talks in this way. It’s the same problem I have with Sam Mendes’ movie American Beauty, another hate letter to the Yankee bourgeoisie, in which the characters’ behavior makes absolutely no sense but we’re supposed to accept it as code for what’s wrong with the American suburbs. The film doesn’t take place in any suburb that accords with my experience, and I don’t know any academic marriages, or any other marriages either, that are like George and Martha’s (or, for that matter, Nick and Honey’s). And I can’t make that leap to the symbolic level when the realist level that Albee makes a point of establishing isn’t remotely convincing. 

Kathleen Turner & Bill Irwin, 2005 (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Todd Rosenthal’s set, a gorgeously dilapidated turn-of-the-century New England cottage crowded with bookcases and piles of unshelved books, is a completely authentic portrait of an academic’s lair; the costumes Nan Cibula-Jenkins has designed, especially for Martha, are ideal; and McKinnon (who directed Clybourne Park) plays the first act so much like a realist sitcom that she manages to get you past that initial hurdle. Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon) don’t leave because even though Martha (Amy Morton) and George (Tracy Letts) keep taking potshots at one another, they laugh appreciatively at each other’s wit and aim, and the spectacle is very entertaining. By the time their exchanges acquire a sinister undercurrent, Honey’s already sloshed (and, intermittently, sick and curled up on the bathroom tiles) and Nick has been drinking so steadily that it feels as if the possibility for departure has come and gone. The first act of the show is so raucously funny that you wonder if McKinnon might actually pull off what, in my experience, no one else has been able to. (I was too young to see the original Broadway version, with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, and I didn’t get to the last, highly touted, revival, with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. But I did see the one Albee himself directed, with master actors Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, and it didn’t work, and I don’t think the Mike Nichols movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton works either, despite his virtuosic acting and her gameness and energy.) Nothing about the interchanges between Letts and Morton feels strained or outré. Morton plays Martha as a good-time gal, and Letts has a marvelous deadpan (it gets more dangerous as the play goes on) and killer timing; as he portrays George, his wit may be curdled but it’s unmistakably wit, and you wait eagerly to hear how he’ll vary his verbal approach. Letts seems to have a bottomless arsenal of verbal attacks. Letts, who is better known as a playwright – and especially for the multi-prize-winning August Osage County, in which Morton gave a fine performance – is a magnificent actor, and he and Morton are ideal sparring partners, even though he has the edge. (Whoever plays George generally does.)

Dirks plays Nick as so banal and square-looking and thin-skinned that you can understand why Martha as well as Nick can’t resist poking fun at him, and his frat-boy vanity is funny, especially when he cracks up at his own half-assed jokes. So is that unpersuasive social belly laugh and the way he keeps rearranging his face out of discomfort. The more he drinks, he more belligerent he gets; the word I might use is “pugilistic.” Martha’s mixed signals – she alternates coming on to him with hanging him out to dry – confuse the hell out of him. And for the first act, at least, Coon’s take on Honey is clever. Her voice sounds like the top has been sliced off it, and she plays the character’s mousy quality by holding herself in, her left arm hooked under her right elbow, pulling in her diaphragm, as if she’s not sure whether or not she wants to disappear. As she gets drunker she starts to wink and wince, as if she were dodging tiny invisible stones. But the role is unplayable, and as the play goes on and she has to try harder and harder you begin to feel sorry for the actress. She’s the evening’s one casualty.

That isn’t to say, however, that McKinnon and the other actors make it through to the end without falling victim to Albee’s play. The first act of this production is masterful; the second act is really good; the third act is impossible. It’s those damn arias. Act two stops dead for George’s narrative about the college boy who ordered “bergin” instead of “bourbon.” It stops dead again at the climax of the big George-Nick scene when Nick’s telling him, “Up yours,” generates a windy philosophical response. (Since either Albee or McKinnon has updated some of the profanity – Martha’s, mostly – Nick’s antiquated phrase sticks out.) And act three contains one speech after another that even an actress as good as Morton can’t solve: Martha’s about the “lunkheads” who keep disappointing her in the sack, and her “George and Martha, sad, sad, sad” speech (that’s a real cringer) and of course the interminable monologue about their non-existent son, which requires Letts to read liturgical Latin in counterpoint. If Virginia Woolf weren’t universally accepted as a classic, would anyone actually think that’s a good idea? However, if you’re going to see the play, this is the production to see. 

David Strathairn and Jessica Chastain in The Heiress

If Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is vastly overrated, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play The Heiress, culled from Henry James’s novella Washington Square, has never received its due. It does get revived, generally as a vehicle for a young actress, but it has the reputation of an antique Broadway war horse. That attitude hardly does it justice. This is a superlative piece of writing, peopled with complex, fascinating characters, and whether in a first-rate production like the 1949 William Wyler film starring Olivia de Havilland, or the one Gerald Gutierrez staged on Broadway in 1995 with Cherry Jones or the Shaw Festival’s mounting a few seasons back with Tara Rosling, or in an adequate one like the version that just opened in New York, its virtues glitter. When I saw Gutierrez’s version I remember wandering out into the lobby at intermission and in every conversation I overheard, my fellow audience members were arguing about the characters.

The Goetzes did a spectacular job of dramatizing James’s story – never an easy task for James adaptors, since he didn’t think in dramatic terms. (They also wrote the screenplay for Wyler’s film, which is extremely faithful to the play.) The setting is mid-nineteenth-century New York. Catherine Sloper is the only child of a successful, cultivated physician who has never recovered from her mother’s death giving birth to her, and who can’t help comparing her to the great love he lost. Catherine continually comes up short: she lacks her mother’s social graces, her mother’s musical ear, her mother’s artistic appreciation. She strives so hard to please him and is so accustomed to his disappointment in her that she’s been stunted; she can be forthcoming, even witty, with her fatuous widow aunt Lavinia, but her father’s formidable presence reduces her to banality and awkwardness, and she’s so sure that the world can only see her as he does that any society outside her family (Dr. Sloper has another sister, whose daughter Marian she grew up with) makes her trip over her own tongue. When Marian’s fiancé brings by a charming, good-looking cousin of his named Morris Townsend and he begins to court her, his attentions befuddle her at first; she has no experience of suitors. He presses her and she falls in love with him; when he asks in her to marry him, she is overjoyed. But he’s a fortune hunter, living off a widowed sister after spending his own limited inheritance, and Dr. Sloper refuses to sanction their union and threatens to disinherit Catherine if she weds Morris. (She has her mother’s money, which is not inconsiderable, but her father’s would make her a wealthy woman.)

Jessica Chastain and Judith Ivey
Sloper is generous with his daughter and he shows her superficial affection, but he deprives her of his love, and his unthinking unkindness to her in making it plain that she’s a constant letdown to him is so wounding that we don’t want him to be right about Morris. Alas, he is. In the movie, Morris is played by Montgomery Clift (it was one of his first major roles), who is so sweet and sensitive and whose attentions to de Havilland’s Catherine seem so boyishly sincere that we’re allowed to reserve judgment. It’s only in the scene just before the Slopers return from the lengthy trip to Europe that Catherine agreed to make with her father (his hope, a vain one, is that she’ll forget Morris while she’s abroad) – when Aunt Lavinia, who has taken the role of duenna in the romance, entertains him in the parlor – that we can no longer deny that it’s really Catherine’s lifestyle and not Catherine herself that has mesmerized him. (In the play, that’s the top of the second act.) Moisés Kaufman’s current production follows Wyler’s example. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley in the television series Downton Abbey) has shiny good looks, and he’s likable; when he dances attendance on Catherine (Jessica Chastain), and even when he tries to ingratiate himself with her intractable father (David Strathairn), he never comes across as glib. The problem is that once we have to acknowledge that Townsend’s intentions are self-serving Stevens doesn’t adjust his performance. In the second act Catherine’s fidelity to Morris – her refusal to see that her father’s assessment of him is accurate – so exasperates Sloper, who is somewhat enamored of his own unerring vision of the world, that he speaks to her in a manner so merciless that she realizes for the first time that he has never loved her at all, and not only doesn’t she flinch from the thought of his disinheriting her – she embraces it. Morris has arranged to elope with her but believes they can win her father’s forgiveness; ingenuously, she tells him that she doesn’t want it – and so he fails to show up to sweep her away. But Stevens doesn’t give us any indication that he’s taken in the implications of her decision, so his failure to appear at the appointed time seems like an oversight. The only quality he fastens on in the character is his affability. He does have one good moment, during his interview with Sloper at the end of the first act, when Sloper hands him his gloves, and he sees both that he is being sent on his way and that those gloves are, to the doctor, proof of his superficiality and self-indulgence.

Jessica Chastain’s reputation as a first-rank young actress is based, as far as I can tell, on the fact that four high-profile movies she co-starred in happened to be released in 2010 (The Tree of Life, Coriolanus, Take Shelter and The Help), not on her actual range or the quality of the performances she gave in them. She was perfectly OK in all four, and she’s perfectly OK as Catherine. It’s probably not fair to compare her to Olivia de Havilland, who gave the role an unsettling neurotic quality, or Cherry Jones, who made the character so lovable that the bitter revenge she took on Morris in the final scene (set two years later, when Dr. Sloper has died and Catherine has inherited his money) truly made you grieve for the loss of an innocent soul. But how can a viewer who’s seen these extraordinary women in the role help but compare? Chastain plays Catherine’s social ineptitude for comedy, which is an acceptable, if hardly an inspired, choice (and it might as easily be Kaufman’s choice as hers). Her main physical choice in the first act is to clasp her hands and pull herself in. When Catherine falls for Townsend, Chastain has no trouble getting at her emotions, but they’re not particularly interesting ones: she cries a lot. When, anticipating Morris’s interview with her father to ask for her hand, she begs Sloper, “It would not be immodest in you to praise me a little,” the line should break your heart, but it fails to because the reading is merely competent. Chastain’s best moments come when she realizes that she’s risked everything on a man who isn’t going to take her away from her unloving father’s house after all, and when, in her last encounter with Morris, she gives him the wedding gift she bought for him in Europe two years earlier, a set of pearl buttons, and observes him with cold eyes as he rhapsodizes over them.

In the great scene in which the jilted Catherine turns on her father, it’s David Strathairn you watch. Strathairn doesn’t make the doctor’s ironies dazzling displays of icy wit as Ralph Richardson did in the Wyler picture; he makes the character sympathetic – as sympathetic as Sloper could ever be – which is a brand-new wrinkle on the part, in my experience. When his sister Liz (Caitlin O’Connell, in a warm, intelligent performance) castigates him in the opening scene for hindering Catherine’s development by seeing her only in terms of her dead mother, he doesn’t get her point; he honestly believes he’s done the best he could by his daughter. He's so frustrated that the glories of Europe have made no impression on her that, in his own mind, his blunt tongue is justified -- he's at the end of his rope. So when Catherine finds her tongue and lashes out at him  in their final tete-a-tete, after he's discovered he's dying  he's unprepared in every way, and we can see his heart shatter. This approach to the role of Austin Sloper seems to have been inspired by the famous Jean Renoir dictum from The Rules of the Game: “Everyone has his reasons.” The other standout performance is by Judith Ivey as silly Aunt Lavinia, who acts like a character out of a romance novel. She’s giggly and garrulous – such a torrent of chatter, in fact, that she keeps interrupting herself. In this role Ivey has a pink, chubby little face framed by Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ringlets that peek out from under her fashionable black lace cap; she’s still in mourning for her husband the reverend, but she’s devoted to fashion. She has a handkerchief forever at hand and a fan hanging from her wrist. (Albert Wolskyk’s costumes hit the right note in every scene.) She walks a little like a duck, swaying slightly from side to side.

All the designers do admirable work. Kaufman shows off Derek McLane’s handsome set in the opening image, when the chandelier is lowered so that the Irish maid, Maria (amusingly played by Virginia Kull as intensely earnest), can illuminate it by hand. The high point of David Lander’s lighting plot is the scene where Catherine and Aunt Lavinia wait in the dark parlor for the fiancé who isn’t coming: the increasing darkness sculpts the women’s delicately lit faces. There are oddities in Kaufman’s staging, though. I sat just a little (house) left of center, and since he seems to have directed the show from house right, I often couldn’t see key faces – like Chastain’s in the scene where Morris asks Catherine to marry him. In their last scene her face was, from my vantage point, cut in half by her needlepoint. There are strange choices, too, like having Catherine take Sloper’s hand to lead him upstairs after she’s told him what she thinks of him. Still, it’s a wonderful play, and audiences who haven’t seen it before are likely to be impressed, if not enthralled, by it. I’m spoiled: I’ve had the enthralling Heiress experience, and more than once.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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