Review: An oddly cast Martha and George expose fragility in Edward Albee’s shatterproof play

If you were to cast your fantasy production of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” would Calista Flockhart and Zachary Quinto be your first, second or even third contenders to play Martha and George?

No disrespect to these fine actors, but they struck me as counterintuitive choices when the Geffen Playhouse announced a new revival of the play. Their ages are actually in the ballpark, but this is the opposite of typecasting.

Quinto, who’s 44 but seems enviably stuck at 38, has to be grayed up to play 46-year-old George. His vigor has to be suppressed for an exhausted husk of a man like George. And the character of Martha, whom Albee described as “ample,” is usually played as blowzy. Not here. Flockhart, who wears a coiffed wig, is less rumpled than Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha in Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version. Her characterization had me incongruously imagining a mood board with photos of Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy

The effect, at least initially, is disorienting. A feeling of pantomime occasionally haunts this staging of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — as though the performers were trying on Albee’s classic for a lark.

But the production, which opened Thursday under the direction of Gordon Greenberg, is a serious effort. The actors take time to settle in, but when they do they shed sympathetic light on some extremely caustic characters.

Still, I never understood what was motivating the existence of this revival. Why now? And why these performers?
One of the landmarks of 20th century American drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” doesn’t need an excuse to be dusted off. But this grueling comedy of marital combatants locked in a marathon struggle clocks in at nearly 3 1/2 hours, making it an odd fit for a pandemic moment in which we’re still wearing masks at the theater and wondering what fresh hell the future holds for our upside-down world.

The three-act war between Martha and George, a drunken long night’s journey into day, is as boisterous as ever. Flockhart brays and Quinto bellows at harrowing volume. The clamor occasionally feels contrived, as though the actors are fulfilling a daring assignment. But there’s nothing half-hearted about their theatrical attack.

Quinto, whose unforgettable portrayal of Louis in Michael Greif’s 2010 off-Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” seized on the character’s rumbling anguish, has had some more recent practice in Albee-esque vituperation through playing Harold in the 2018 Broadway production of Martin Crowley’s “The Boys in the Band.” Flockhart caused a stir in the 1999 off-Broadway production of Neil LaBute’s “Bash: Latterday Plays.”

Both actors, however, are better known for their screen work — Quinto as Spock in the “Star Trek” films and Flockhart from her distinguished career in television (“Ally McBeal,” “Brothers & Sisters”). But they lean into the uninhibited aggression of Albee’s playwriting.

Martha is raucously disappointed in George, an associate professor of history whose career has stalled. The daughter of the university’s president, she goads and belittles him for being “a flop.” She’s merciless in her condemnation, but her objective is to wrest her husband from his cynical indifference, which is his weapon of choice. They hurt each other to prove that they still care.

The battlefield is Martha and George’s booklined home. (Scenic designer Wilson Chin brings the academic ambience to life with handsome shabbiness.) By the end of the evening, there will be a casualty. But this being an Albee play, the death will be an abstract and symbolic one.

Setting the stage for a momentous brawl, Martha has invited a younger couple home for a nightcap after a party at her father’s house. Nick (Graham Phillips), an ambitious new recruit to the biology department, and his mousy wife, Honey (Aimee Carrero), are the captive audience for Martha and George’s escalating hostilities.

Phillips, strangely sporting the blond highlights of a Malibu surfer, is unerringly good as the handsome, self-seeking professor Martha shamelessly flirts with as a way of castrating George. Carrero brings a spry comic waywardness to her portrayal of the brandy-swigging spouse, who’s already growing a bit restless in the shadow of her rising academic star husband.

When Martha and George look at Nick and Honey, they can’t help seeing themselves when they were starting out and not yet completely jaded. Martha and George serve as a marital object lesson for the younger couple, who function in turn as catalysts in the older couple’s overdue reckoning.

Albee divides “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” into three acts, the last of which is called “The Exorcism.” The demon that is purged is the illusion that has kept Martha and George from confronting the emptiness, existential and otherwise, they have been desperately and destructively trying to escape.

For Albee, the truth, even at its most painful, is better than an anaesthetizing lie. Martha and George’s fictitious baby — one of their private games Martha took upon herself to share with her guests in a night of brutal horseplay — will have to die. But it’s a death that at least holds the glimmer of a rebirth.

Quinto’s George and Flockhart’s Martha rarely make sense as husband and wife. But there are moments when they expose the emotion driving them both to truculent extremes.

For Quinto, it was in Act 2, when he justifies his cruelty to Martha as self-defense. “You can humiliate me, you can tear me apart all night,” he says, landing on the word “humiliate” as though touching down on his own broken soul.

For Flockhart, it was in the final act, when she admits to Nick that there is only one man who has ever made her happy. After the carnage he’s witnessed, Nick can’t imagine that she’s talking about George. But Flockhart’s Martha, crashing violently into her own mangled tenderness, explains that she’s punishing her husband for making “the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake” of loving her.

Greenberg’s production doesn’t achieve the theatrical thunder of Anthony Page’s 2005 revival with Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner that came to the Ahmanson Theatre or the dramatic incisiveness of Pam MacKinnon’s 2012 Broadway revival with Tracy Letts (the finest George I’ve ever seen) and Amy Morton. But despite not being a natural stage match, Quinto and Flockhart expose something infinitely fragile in Albee’s shatterproof play.

‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends May 22.
Tickets: Start at $39
Info: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes (including two 10-minute intermissions)
COVID Protocol: Proof of full vaccination is required. Masks are required at all times.

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