Expecting a 7 or 8 on the Richter scale, we are disappointed to report that Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson's revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at the Doolittle Theatre yields only a 3 or 4. Cracked ceilings, but no structural damage.
Some of this can be explained by the fact that a lot of blood has gone under the bridge, as Albee's George and Martha might put it, since "Virginia Woolf" first came out in 1962. We may not put down as much booze as we did then, or stay up as late, but we are a lot harder to shock. When was the last time you heard anybody say, as Honey does in the play--"Such language"?
Nor would Honey be stunned, these days, at the revelation that George and Martha's child is--well, let's say, a device to keep their marriage going. "Hey, no problem," she would tell them. "If it works for you guys, go for it. There are no shoulds. Thank you for sharing."
This is what 30 years of pop psychology has done to us. And, of course, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was part of that education. Can a revival return us to those innocent, guilty days when people had to get loaded before revealing their inmost secrets, rather than trotting them out over dessert? Can this play still harrow us?
Probably. But it didn't Wednesday night. Rather than Strindberg--the playwright Albee used to remind us of--you thought of Noel Coward. Coward, however, would have sent us home at 11 rather than 11:30.
The revival stars John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson, and is directed by Albee himself. Neatly. The speeches are firmly in place, the blocking is well considered, the character points are made. And the actors don't have to make them at a distance, as is necessary at the Ahmanson.
The Doolittle is a particularly grateful house for comedy. And there are no problems in that department. Lithgow and Jackson play George and Martha with the assurance of dedicated character assassins, not your hire-and-salary types. The zingers are as wicked as they were in '62. Jackson's Martha is particularly happy here. Take that splendid passage where she denounces all the men in her life except her Daddy as "flops." What a wonderfully American word, and what scorn (and self-scorn) the actress brings to it.
Jackson's Martha is all animus. Lithgow's George is all anima--that sly female spirit that knows just when to pounce. He likes to come in at an angle, especially when he is handing someone a drink (Brian Kerwin as Nick-from-the-sticks, or Cynthia Nixon as Nick's simpy child-bride, Honey).
Oh, they're good at what they do, this George and Martha. What's even better are the moments of respite. Her braying laugh of admiration when he drops a really cunning lob on her. His smile of pride when she launches into her improvisation about their invisible child, Sunny Jim. What will she come up with this round?
No actors have ever done the George & Martha Show with more style. But when it comes to making us care about George and Martha, a lot of people have done better. Jackson's enormous self-sufficiency as an actress keeps us from feeling that there's anything under Martha's scorn but more scorn--she may be hurting, but she's in perfect control of herself, and doesn't need George any more at the end of the play than she did at the beginning.
In a sense, the play is "The Taming of the Shrew," with George as Petruchio--and Lithgow goes through the motions of bringing his woman to heel. But the tide of the play isn't felt to turn at a certain point during their "witches' sabbath." In fact, the production can't honestly be said to have a tide. It's three sets of championship word-tennis (everybody's energy flagging a bit in the second set) and then off to the showers.
"Virginia Woolf" ought to leave us feeling shaken, as a persuasive example of what can happen when the games that all married people play--and they do--get out of hand. It's supposed to be about the night George and Martha went too far. Here, it's about another night with George and Martha.
A different director might have served the play better, ensuring that more happened between the lines without taking any of the sting out of the lines. A different director also might have finessed certain passages that haven't worn well: the Decline of the West business, George's Latin readings as his "son" goes to limbo.
Perhaps more hints from the costumes (Albert Wolsky) or from the country living-room set (D. Martyn Bookwalter, after William Ritman's original setting) would have made it clearer that "Virginia Woolf" doesn't pretend to be set in the present. Perhaps a moodier lighting scheme (Martin Aronstein) would help us to chart those tides better.
This is the play as Albee wants it, and he knows what he wants. But "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" only stings us this time around, where once it stunned us.
Plays at 1615 N. Vine St., Hollywood, Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Closes Dec. 17. Tickets: $20-$36. (213) 410-1062.
'WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?'
Edward Albee's play, presented by Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson at the James A. Doolittle Theatre. Director Albee. Scenery D. Martyn Bookwalter (after William Ritman's original setting). Lighting Martin Aronstein. Costumes Albert Wolsky. Production stage manager Mark Wright. With Glenda Jackson, John Lithgow, Brian Kerwin and Cynthia Nixon.