Let’s start by celebrating the meteoric rise of Theatre Exile – they’ve arrived the top level of Philadelphia’s vibrant theatre scene.
The Exilers are known for their edgy sensibility – and what better way to showcase it than in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a landmark work that is (to use an Albee word) the “Parnassus” of edginess. Director Joe Canuso delivers an accomplished production, full of bold, original ideas. The show takes risks, which bring gains and losses. Still, this is a major event, and Theatre Exile is playing in the big leagues.
If you haven’t seen Virginia Woolf recently, you may be startled by how utterly contemporary this 50-plus-year-old-play seems – also (in the small Plays & Players theatre), how intimate. The skeleton structure is merely this – four characters, one set, and continuous action over a period of several hours, as a pair of married couples (middle-aged George and Martha, and relatively newlyweds Nick and Honey) get together for late-night, post-dinner party drinks.
And yet – Virginia Woolf is shattering, epic. Two relationships and four lives will be analyzed – dissected, really – in an evening of revelations, from which no one will emerge unscathed.
Much of what is discussed – of what actually occurred in the past – remains ambiguous. Albee’s elliptical script, written early in his career, is poised between realism and absurdism. (No wonder it’s a favorite work for scholarly analysis!)
But there is no doubting that Virginia Woolf can shake an audience to its core. It’s an unflinching immersion in booze, blood and vomit, and it has lost none of its power over the last half-century. (Actually, I take that back – Albee’s script has lost something, due entirely to a series of editorial changes he himself made in the last decade, which add an unwelcome note of conventional melodrama.)
Virginia Woolf has a history of distinguished productions, and in a fascinating sense, they vary considerably, as each re-interprets the play within the changing landscape of American drama.
By many accounts, the legendary first production emphasized the mysterious side. A few years later, Mike Nichols’ excellent film adaptation focused tightly on the principal characters (in career-defining performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). A decade ago on Broadway, an interesting if flawed version by British director Anthony Page heightened the play’s absurdity. A few years later, another – from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre – treated it more realistically than any I’d seen previously.
Such is the stature of Virginia Woolf that they all had something to offer, and each found a different balance in Albee’s wild tonal mix – part confession, part tragedy, part very black comedy.
At Theatre Exile, the humor registers first. Initially, you might imagine that Neil Simon’s evil twin wrote this Virginia Woolf. The pace is fast, the conversation loudly energetic, and the laughs are bountiful.
It’s an unusual approach, but, in part, it pays off. Catharine Slusar (Martha) is lively and seductive – we really feel her charisma, as we should. Pierce Bunting (George) displays surface joviality that helps explain why Nick would confide in him. (Later in the play, Bunting provides some brilliantly haunting moments.)
But heightened comedy also means there’s less of the roiling subtext of rage, betrayal, and mistrust; also, too few of the awkward pauses that make us feel so (appropriately) uncomfortable. This Virigina Woolf needs more darkness, metaphorically and literally (the over-bright living room hasn’t enough shadows). One telling example is Martha’s long description of her boxing match with George. Here, it’s a funny anecdote, rather than a harrowing micro-portrait of their marriage, eternally mired in attraction and violence.
The younger couple is also interpreted with a lighter touch. Nick (played by Jake Blouch) is hapless, rather than conniving, while Honey (Emilie Krause) is less neurotic than usual. Both do well with the general badinage, but we miss the crucial sense that that they are willing – even eager – participants in the carnage.
In the end, no Virginia Woolf is “the” Virginia Woolf. The play is too complex for that – which is why it’s so great.
And why it demands to be seen here, in this daring, invested, production.
Through May 17, Theatre Exile at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancy Pl., (215) 218-4022, theatreexile.org