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George and Martha might be “sad, sad, sad,” as half of the characters lament in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but it’s still electrifying to spend three hours with the supremely dysfunctional First (Fictional) Couple of American Theater. In the magnificent Steppenwolf production that opened at the Booth on October 13, exactly fifty years after Albee’s iconic work made its Broadway debut at the Billy Rose, Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tracy Letts is a marvel onstage as George, an intensely cynical, beat-down history professor at a small, prestigious New England college. George is married to the deliciously wicked Martha (a terrific Amy Morton), whose father is the college president; six years older than her husband, she never misses an opportunity to shred him. One very late night after a campus party, new biology teacher Nick (a wonderfully smug and smirking Madison Dirks) and his wife, the ditzy Honey (a splendidly quirky Carrie Coon), are invited for a nightcap at George and Martha’s home, where things go from bad to worse as George lights into Martha and Nick, Martha lights into George and lights up to Nick, and Honey has trouble holding her liquor, plenty of which flows throughout. As Honey and Nick are caught up in George and Martha’s extremely nasty games — actually, they are given no choice — secrets both big and small come out, creating an intoxicating tension that threatens to explode at any moment, and finally does.
Director Pam MacKinnon (Clybourne Park) gives every marvelous word the prominence it deserves as the four characters make their way around Todd Rosenthal’s appropriately messy set, as much in disarray as the lives of the protagonists. (There’s even a working clock in one corner that keeps time within the show.) Playing roles that have previously been performed by such pairs as Arthur Hill and Uta Hagen in the original Broadway production, Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in 1977, Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner in the 2005 revival, and, most famously, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Mike Nichols’s 1966 film, Letts and Morton give the dueling couple a unique resonance all their own, perhaps because they have been working opposite each other very often at Steppenwolf since 1999. They are a justly celebrated pair: Letts earned a Pulitzer for writing August: Osage County, while Amy was nominated for a Tony for her performance in the play. In his Broadway acting debut, Letts is a revelation, dominating the stage with his eyes as well as his razor-sharp barbs, although Morton manages to go toe-to-toe with him. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an intricately woven web of love and hate, of marriage and infidelity, of loyalty and betrayal, as past, present, and future collide over way too much bourbon and brandy. It is no mere accident that George is a history professor, stuck in the past, and Nick is in the biology department, where science is delving into genetic research. Albee’s play holds up remarkably well; it might be fifty years old, but it feels as fresh as ever, cementing its place in the past, present, and future of American theater.