Friday, October 9, 2009

Crying Woolf

Tina Packer and Nigel Gore rest their lungs in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Boston's been getting a double dose of the absurd recently, with both Pinter's The Caretaker and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? up and running. Neither production is satisfying - but the Nora's thoughtfully-produced Caretaker at least raises interesting questions about precisely how a production might work Pinter's old black-comedy magic in a post-ironic age. I'll be writing more about that issue soon.

Virginia Woolf?, by way of contrast, is just disappointing, and only raises questions about director Diego Arciniegas's choices and the waning powers of actress Tina Packer. I was surprised at the production's weakness, but perhaps shouldn't have been; audiences are greeted by a weirdly prescient message from the author (inserted in each program) which reads, "This production is not approved by the play’s author, Edward Albee. Nevertheless, the production has been allowed to open."

Well, I didn't approve of the production either. There's been a chorus of local exasperation over the Publick's struggles with this famously difficult author, but really, there are many obvious reasons why Albee might have wanted to stop the curtain from going up on this particular version of his masterpiece. The leading actress is twenty years past her character's proper age (and isn't really right for the role, anyway); she and her leading man inexplicably sport British accents in this nearly-iconic American play; the set is strangely sleek and postmodern, and the abstracted lighting prone to intrusive effects; perhaps worst of all, the text has been modestly, but tellingly, trimmed into a star vehicle, à la the movie version - only this time there's really no star to drive the vehicle.

But please, all of you in the Tina Packer cheering section, before you write in - this talented lady is 71 years old, hardly an age for rough-and-tumble nearly-three-hour marathons (I know I don't want to be working this hard when I'm 71). I admit I'm stunned by her stamina - she's still got the lung power for the role, and then some (in fact she and co-star Nigel Gore bellow their way monotonously through most of two acts). But she's hampered by memory problems, and doesn't always move confidently on the set (she does the role barefoot). All this would be beside the point, of course, if she were emotionally credible in the part, but she's not. Packer could do Martha from a walker if need be, if she had a handle on her frustrated vengefulness; but while she hollers every insult with gusto, there's no real malice behind their delivery, and not even a hint of hatred or despair. (There's merely pain and vulnerability, which would have disgusted any Martha worth the salt in her wounds.) Thus the play simply doesn't have its central arc; when Martha wails toward the finish that she's "not a monster," we only think to ourselves, "Well of course not; you're just a big, unhappy baby."

At least Nigel Gore, as passive-aggressive hubby George, holds up his end of the game (although here and there he's a bit mannered). Still, watching him is like watching a mime play tennis with a non-existent partner - he dashes to the right emotional spot, and then doggedly lobs back his retort, just as if the actual blow had landed. Meanwhile, as Nick and Honey, the not-so-innocent guests who have wandered into this dysfunctional couple's crossfire, newcomer Kevin Kaine and the talented Angie Jepson make an impression, although perhaps not quite the right one. The expertly coiffed Kaine is certainly a looker, but is slightly too prim and prissy for the smart, crass, all-American jock he's playing, and Jepson sometimes goes a bit manically overboard (Honey's more intriguing when she slowly zones out).

But to be fair, both have been cheated of their best lines - in particular, the revelation that Honey actually aborted her baby (rather than suffering a "hysterical pregnancy") has been unconscionably deleted. This was missing from the movie, too - probably because censors thought abortion an impermissible topic for the big screen - but it's really essential to Albee's larger themes, and here has only been cut, it seems, to streamline things for the stars. Other bits seemed to have disappeared with even less reason - including my favorite line in the play, the one about George and Martha cracking each others' bones and sucking out the marrow. Which only made me wonder what could have possessed director Arciniegas, who recently directed note-perfect versions of Humble Boy and Travesties, to make these changes? My guess would be that he was railroaded by Packer and Co., who worried that an uncut Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would prove a rather a long evening. Of course with great central performances, the journey is worth it. Here, I couldn't wait for it to be over.


  1. Just as a note. I think Albee made that cut for the 2005 Broadway revival.

    I saw that production at the Wilbur, but I think the scene was in at that time, because I remember being confused when I read mention about the cut in later reviews.

    Indeed, at the Ford Hall Forum in 2007, which I attended, Albee was asked about cutting the powerful scene before the act.

    Albee explained that he cut it simply because he thought the act should end sooner.

    I haven't seen the Public production, yet. But I think this is the scene you are talking about.

  2. Hmmmm. I'm sure the exchange about Honey's abortion was in the 2005 revival at the Wilbur. If he cut it for Broadway, shame on Mr. Albee. And Diego, you're off the hook for that one. (Interesting, though, that even Albee should worry about the show's run time! Someone should tell him there are other bits he could cut.)

  3. Just to clarify.

    At the Ford Hall Forum, Albee gave a strange answer for the cut.

    He said that it was not because of length or consideration of the audience, he just "felt that the act should end there."

    It was a little strange, because the person asking the question as well as other members of the audience, who were nodding in agreement, seemed to have had the same reaction to the cut as you do here.

    And, if you remember the scene at the Wilbur, that makes two of us, so I guess it was still in at that point.

  4. Yes, we'll file that under, "The producer wanted the play to be shorter, but I'd never yield to purely commercial considerations, so I decided to come to the same conclusion for reasons that only I understand." Yes. At any rate, the exchange is one of the most interesting revelations of the play, and expands its thematic reach enormously; plus eliminating it makes Honey's last-minute outburst of "I want to have a baby!" something of a non sequitur. It should have stayed in.

  5. I guess I won't be seeing it then. The Caretaker was a little disappointing for its length. I don't know exactly what lines were cut for the film, but I thought when George and Honey are alone outside after coming back from the bar it's implied that she had an abortion. I think she says 'I don't want to be hurt...please...I don't want any children.'

  6. The Caretaker is, I agree, somewhat disappointing, but it falls victim, I think, to the problem that Pinter's icy irony and submerged power games have become such a staple of pop culture. "Irony" has gone meta - it's now a tool of accommodation rather than critique. How can a production get around that problem? I'm not sure. The insults in Woolf, however, are still pretty hair-raising because they're so intimate, and the gay subtext of Martha's and George's relationship has kept it feeling up-to-the-minute.

    Interesting point about those lines in the film, they could be read that way. But there's a much clearer, colder exchange between Honey and George in the script that suddenly makes us wonder if Honey isn't actually the real monster on stage.