Astonishing revival of 'Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon during a performance of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". (AP)

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon during a performance of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". (AP)

An errant swipe during an argument shattered the bulb and a puff of cloud went up to heaven. The actors went about their business calmly, unperturbed. But when Act 3 opened, the lamp was restored. Its light worked perfectly.

If only the characters onstage were as easily repaired.

This masterpiece of a play by Edward Albee is now celebrating its 50th anniversary on Broadway with an astonishing production courtesy of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Time has not dulled a word of the play, but this group manages to add even more illumination, despite the broken lamp.

Starring Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as the battling couple at its heart and terrifically led by director Pam MacKinnon, the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that is being played at the Booth Theatre is vicious and yet hysterically funny, crisp and loving and savage.

Taking place over several alcohol-fuelLed hours on a New England university campus in 1962, the play centres on George, a seemingly weak-willed history professor, and his wife, Martha, an abrasive daughter of the college president. They've been sparring with each other for most of their 23 married years, and they seem to go over and over the same rutted terrain.

After a party one night, Martha has invited Nick, a young, ambitious biology teacher, and Honey, Nick's meek wife, to come over for a drink or two or 10. That sets the stage for George and Martha to go at it – a noisy, emotional bloodletting and recrimination-tossing fight that lasts into the wee hours.

"In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement, right up to your neck," George tells his wife, as if serving her an appetizer. Martha lets loose her own opening salvo, calling George: "A great ... big ... fat ... FLOP."

Letts as George spends the night with his hands stuffed in an old cardigan or sometimes resting self-consciously on his paunch or fiddling with his glasses. He is quick to anger and will happily grapple, but also will back down if need be. He's playing a long game and Letts allows years of pain and frustration to seep out of a semi-broken man. It is simply a stunning performance, an actor at the top of his game.

Morton as Martha is no pushover either and her disappointed wife is ferocious in a low-cut top, very provocative, and yet just as needy and shattered as her husband. The comfort Letts and Morton radiate on stage comes from years together at Steppenwolf, and Broadway is the beneficiary.

This duo circles each other all night in Todd Rosenthal's book-filled, slovenly and bursting at the seams set, slicing and jabbing about failure – unpublished books, unfulfilled lives and their son. The latter is a time bomb of a subject that will still make your heart hurt even if you know it's coming.

Collateral damage are Nick and Honey, who get swept up in the booze-slickened gladiator fight and reveal too many of their own secrets, which naturally are thrown right back at their faces.

Nick, played with arrogance and predatory zeal by Madison Dirks, and poor, weak Honey, portrayed with great fragility by Carrie Coon, will never be the same as they stumble out of the house. They represent the next generation and they have just been schooled in the dark arts of psychological warfare.

"It isn't a pretty spectacle," George admits. "Seeing a couple of middle-aged types hacking away at each other, all red in the face and winded, missing half the time."

"Oh, you two don't miss," Nick replies, very correctly.

MacKinnon, who recently brilliantly directed Clybourne Park and has worked closely with Albee ever since she directed the premiere of his The Play About the Baby in 2001, proves again that she is a master at pacing and getting the best out of her actors who are wrestling with tough material. At Saturday's opening night, Albee came up on stage to wild applause – and bowed to her.

This production plays the laughs excellently but also proves that love – twisted and damaged, perhaps – is at the heart of this play. The way George puts a blanket around his emotionally drained wife's shoulders at the end of a night that included betrayal – both physical and emotional – is a lovely touch, one of many. A lamp may have been sacrificed on opening night, but this is a production that burns brightly nevertheless. – Sapa-AP

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