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10/15/12

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Serving Up Classic Fabulosity

Here's the thing about Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - it's a classic. It's one of those "shades of grey" productions that holds up well overtime even though it really shouldn't when you think about the constructs of the show. Yes, even with the power of 2012 post-modern reflection.

However, the 50th anniversary revival of Virginia Woolf, now open at the Booth Theater, avoids nearly every pratfall. The story, which despite my criticisms, I do love it at its core, is still the same as it always is. Basically, an old, jaded married couple plays host to a young married couple and they all pound alcohol like it is their jobs and argue for hours on end about anything and everything that pops into their minds.

Classic Bitch Cutting
That's the heart of this revival right there - it shouldn't work, but it still does by embracing its Virginia Woolfiness. You may think about the unexplained and the implausibilities - What type of people spew such vitriolic remarks at each other and in front of company? Why doesn't the younger couple leave instead of subjecting themselves to such scrutiny and torment?  How come they don't they leave when the wife is legit passed out on the bathroom floor after vomiting? Who, the eff, talks about such intimate and personal matters mere hours after meeting new people, many years their junior?

Instead of pondering every nuance, I was immersed in the dialogue and the characters and nary thinking about what the story occasionally lacks. It's worth noting that the set design, where bookshelves and books run amok, makes great use of the Booth Theater and create a household circa the early-sixties without being obvious about it. And by the way, between Next to Normal and Other Desert Cities, the Booth is a set designer's paradise it seems. It feels as if the audience is transported back to 1962 when the original production opened and we all are pounding martinis and blazing up cigarettes in the box seats. Ah, the good ole days...

But what I loved is how smart the story was presented and how it plays up the audience's intellect in such a minimalist way. Subtlety is well-deployed and the "good" ambiguities are on-point, but not tantalizing as we delve into the inner-workings of a couple that have gone through and are still going through an all-out war for survival on a day-to-day basis. And despite every contrary to logic convention, both in the show and as a spectator, it all comes together in a dramatic, passionate and emotional kind-of resolution starting halfway through the second act and continuing well into the final moments of the show.

Another reason to love this production is the strong cast - but the show's obvious standout is Tracy Letts, playing George masterfully. And that is saying something considering Bill Irwin won the Best Lead Actor Tony during the show's last revival in 2005, not to mention Richard Burton's fantastic Oscar-nominated portrayal in the film.

Let me put it this way...every incarnation of George is pretty similar. He's arrogant, self-assured (in a bad way), antagonistic, condescending, manipulative and downright insane at some moments. Basically, he is the classic version of a douschebag. But what Letts does, something I have never seen in any stage or film of Virginia Woolf, is make his George the most enjoyable character to watch...maybe even the most likeable in a bizarre way. I actually found myself cheering and laughing at his "take no prisoner" antics, no matter how malevolent they were, more often then I stared at him with disgust and shock (as you should when faced with a George-type character). Letts is in full command of every hat George wears and never once falls out of character or surrenders the control he has over the company. In a production very subtle in itself, Letts has stage presence to spare without being obvious about it. Except maybe that one scene where he pulls out a fake gun as if he is going to start busting caps in his guests...but aside from that!

The production is an all-around home run and made for a surprisingly engaging night out on the Broadway. And if all future incarnations of Virginia Woolf are as well-staged and captured like this one, I am looking forward to watching the 100th anniversary production on Mars or in a space ship or while moseying around on hovercrafts or something. I'll get the premium seats in advance, if that is what they are still called by then.

Photo Credit: ChicagoTribune.com

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