In a university town, does this play ever get old? Virginia Woolf’s George and Martha are nearly as famous as George and Martha Washington. The name-twinning invites ironic smirks as playwright Edward Albee overlays the stately brand of our country’s first First Couple with scenes of sloppy, boozy dysfunction. Albee has written dozens of plays, but his portrayal of middle-aged pair in a New England college town who verbally flay each after a faculty dinner party is the only one that ever went viral, so to speak. He tapped a vein here that he was never able to find again.
Critics immediately recognized genius, but haven’t always been great at explaining the appeal. The first time George and Martha squared off against each other, on Broadway in 1962, the New York Times’ Howard Taubman solemnly proclaimed it “a bitter, keening lament over man’s incapacity to arrange his environment or private life so as to inhibit his self-destructive compulsions.” Albee himself isn’t much better at talking about it–in the interviews with him that still exist, on paper and film, he comes across as a pedantic old crank. The hulking skeleton of a plot, built upon the question of whether George and Martha’s son is real, hasn’t aged well. Also, trapped in the amber of Albee’s early Sixties is a lot of Freudian nonsense that New Yorkers of the era were steeped in: watch Albee try to show that a woman who loves her father will eventually have to choose between father and husband, and the choice will castrate one of them, unless she can successfully transfer that heavy load of baggage onto a child. Oy.
But oh, the brilliant, slashing dialogue! If words were swords, George and Martha would be dead ten times over, and the audience would be drowned in their blood. And the current production of Virginia Woolf at Performance Network has the funnest and funniest, most evenly matched George and Martha you’re ever going to meet. Smoky-voiced Sandra Birch is never shrill but sometimes rises to a penetrating but melodious Phyllis Diller cackle. Her Martha knows exactly what she’s up to, and drink only sharpens her steely wit. Only George (John Seibert) can keep up with her, and at one point she pays him the supreme compliment: “he keeps learning the games I play quicker than I can change the rules.”
In some productions, their young guests Nick (Nicholas Yocum) and Honey (Victoria Walters) seem no more than passive dupes drawn into their game. Here, they’re more like a new generation of George and Martha in training, who sense the thrilling pull of their combative alliance. I was dazzled.
The play closes November 1.