Actress, songwriter, and novelist Kate Scelsa answers Edward Albee’s nearly-sixty-year-old rhetorical question, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” in her first play for Elevator Repair Service, Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, some things are fine but others are not with Everyone’s Fine, which opened last night at Abrons Arts Center. Founded in 1991, ERS specializes in inventive reimaginings of literary classics, from the eight-hour Gatz, which includes every single word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to a frenetically paced, modernized Measure for Measure as well as experimental adaptations of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (which ERS called The Select). The opening scenes of Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf are terrific, a smart, hysterically funny reinterpretation of Albee’s original, only a whole lot more overtly sexualized, with shifting power dynamics. Following a college faculty party, George Washington (Vin Knight), a professor who teaches Tennessee Williams, and his plant-killing wife, Martha (Annie McNamara), are visited by a much younger couple, Nick Sloane (Mike Iveson), a slash-fiction writer and teacher at the college who is seeking tenure, and his wife, Honey (April Matthis), an online researcher with no personal or professional ambitions.
As they drink, and drink, and then drink some more, they come on to one another and discuss literature, Woody Allen, tennis, and imaginary children, using twenty-first-century language. “I’m totes cool with Virginia Woolf. / She’s my bitch. / I love her. / I like how she was super gay. / La la la de da,” Martha sings. It starts out like a wild and raunchy, NSFW Carol Burnett Show skit — think of Burnett as Martha, Harvey Korman as George, Vicki Lawrence as Honey, and Tim Conway as Nick — with clever wordplay as the characters explore sexual boundaries, self-oppression, and the lowly human condition. Even Louisa Thompson’s living-room and kitchen sets mimic that of a sketch comedy program, with painted fake backdrops that help generate low-budget slapstick. In addition, Scelsa and director and ERS founder John Collins riff on both Albee’s Tony-winning 1962 play and Mike Nichols’s Oscar-nominated 1966 film, the latter starring Richard Burton as George and Elizabeth Taylor as Martha. At one point in Everyone’s Fine, Martha is chewing on a chicken leg, a sly reference to Taylor’s famous bout with a chicken bone in her throat.
But the play soon devolves into too much self-parody and repetition, going way over the top. “All fiction is fan fiction,” both Honey and George say in response to Nick’s penchant for writing slash fiction, which Nick describes as “fan fiction where you make everyone gay even if they’re not.” That is precisely what Scelsa has done with Everyone’s Fine, which is essentially a slash-fiction version of Who’s Afraid? that is unable to sustain its seventy-five-minute length, which is significantly shorter than the original’s three and a half hours. McNamara (Gatz, The Sound and the Fury) steals the show as Martha, playing her with a carefully choreographed chaos steeped in riotous physical comedy as she establishes Martha as a powerful feminist figure; you can’t take your eyes off her for fear of missing even the slightest comic moment. And longtime ERS company member Scelsa — author of the well-received 2015 YA novel Fans of the Impossible Life, member of the indie band the Witch Ones, and cohost of the “Kate & Vin Scelsa Podcast” with her father, legendary free-form DJ Vin Scelsa — takes Albee’s third-act exorcism to absurd extremes with Lindsay Hockaday as an utterly confusing new character. It’s too bad that the play gets derailed, because it had all the makings of a fab parody, with some great lines, especially this gem from a drunk Honey, which relates to the work itself: “I mean, what were you trying to do? Coopt the infantilization of grown women into some kind of subversive gesture?”