The Arena Stage, in Washington DC, is having something of an Edward Albee Festival at the moment, a tribute to the Don of America’s living playwrights. I suspect he must be basking in well-deserved adulation, and enjoying it thoroughly. My wife and I drove up Saturday to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Ever present throughout the building, the voice of Albee himself warned us to “shut off all cell phones and electronic devices and enjoy the play.” They’re also showing his At Home at the Zoo in their new Kogod Cradle Theatre through April 24. And for those who are even bigger Albee fans than I, staged readings of all thirty of his plays complete the Festival.
I certainly qualify as a big fan. “The Death of Bessie Smith,” “The Zoo Story,” “The Sandbox,” and “The American Dream” were among the first plays I ever directed. Shortly after Albee completed his Three Tall Women, he was good enough to read the first full-length play I ever wrote and submit his comments. When I was later fortunate enough to be introduced to him, we agreed that we both had “mother issues.”
By now, I’m sure I must have seen most of what he has so masterfully turned out over the years. But Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was my very first experience with the talents of Edward Albee. Such a simple little story: One long night in an Associate Professor’s house, in a small American college town; George and Martha viciously destroy each other and their guests in a drunken orgy that exposes all the games, lies and pretenses on which they depend for their survival. Sometime early in 1963, while I was in graduate school in New York, before I was married, I wandered into the Billy Rose Theatre on 41st Street, now the Nederlander, and saw the play’s original production, with Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill. I still have the program, and I still have many of that production’s images permanently pasted into long-term memory. It was a riveting, life-questioning experience to say the least. I think I had just met the woman who was going to become my wife of 46 years (and still going strong). But at the time I’m sure that I must have questioned whether I would ever submit to marriage if that was what it was going to be like. The play was directed by Alan Schneider, a name which meant little to me at the time, but who, before he was accidentally killed by a motorcycle in 1984, would be recognized as one of America’s finest. I was not alone in my response to the play that married people, presumably in love, could not possibly be so vicious to each other. And yet it rang so true. Parts of the play could have come directly from my secret listening post at the top of the stairs, as I eavesdropped on my parents below.
The following year, Eric Berne published his Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships, in which he introduced his theory of “transactional analysis,” suggesting that our bad behavior is associated with switching roles between child, parent, and adult. The rituals we engage in, the “transactions,” he says, are cover-ups for secret motivations, and the results are predictable. Clearly, Albee could have explained all that to him.
Two years later, after I had decided to risk marriage after all, Mike Nichols came out with the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis and George Segal. It was nominated for every Oscar category there was, and Liz, of course, took home the Best Actress statue.
I have to say, it is a truly eerie experience to watch this play again, with the ghost of Elizabeth Taylor hovering in the theatre, just days after her death. I did not envy the very able Amy Morton for trying to fill those shoes, despite her knowledge of the character, having already directed the play herself. She clearly did not want to do a Taylor imitation, and didn’t. But what she did do was funny, painful, exhausting, horrifying, and at the same time enormously sympathetic. Her Martha was frailer and more vulnerable than her two memorable predecessors, making her vicious “game” all the more essential. It would be easy to play Martha as the villain of the piece, who gets her comeuppance at the hands of her long ill-treated husband. Not here. Rarely have the jobs of gamesman and mutual enabler been more thoroughly explored.
And then there was Tracy Letts, the playwright (August: Osage County, Superior Donuts), another veteran of Chicago’s wonderful Steppenwolf Theatre. Just the day before seeing Virginia Woolf, I had attended a Q&A session with my students and the playwright Carlos Murillo. Murillo had written Dark Play, or Stories for Boys, and he was describing its themes exploring gamesmanship. “Dark play” is an expression commonly defined as a game in which one or more players do not know that they are in a game. … a pretty good fit for Albee’s masterpiece. And when asked by a student what was the single best training for a career as a playwright, Murillo responded without hesitation, “Act!” Tracy Letts is certainly the embodiment of that advice. A Pulitzer Prize winning playwright with a deceptively boyish face, his George is a giant mountain of sand piled on top of a nuclear meltdown. Apart from a few gleams in his eye, he is hard to read, the perfect picture of husbandly patience, until he is pushed over the line, and rewrites the rules of the game.
Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks ably complete the cast as the victims of George’s “Get the Guests” game. The play was directed by Pam McKinnon, a New York-based longtime Albee interpreter.
A half century after Albee wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the play remains just as relevant and dangerous today. And forty-six years into a relatively calm cool and collected marriage, my wife and I were exchanging surreptitious looks during the performance as if to say “Were/are we really like that?” … So easy to deny, but doesn’t every relationship depend to a large degree on gamesmanship? How else can it begin, but with a gambit? As I watched the George and Martha duel for survival, I could not get out of my mind the opening line of Murillo’s Dark Play: “I make up shit.” Don’t we all?
By the way, even those who are not Albee fans will appreciate the stunning new glass and concrete Mead Center for American Theater, which houses the Arena’s three stages. It’s Washington’s newest landmark. And coming back for this summer is their fabulous production of Oklahoma, not to be missed.