By Ben Kessler
Edward Albee’s classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? returns to Broadway in a 50th-anniversary production from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Tracy Letts and Amy Morton will appear in the iconic roles of George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple locked in terminal, tragic combat on a New England college campus. Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks will play Honey and Nick, the catalytic younger couple whose own deep-seated “issues” are teased out and mirrored in the main conflict.
Letts, a seasoned stage actor, is perhaps best-known as the writer of the Tony Award-winning August: Osage County, which aimed for greatness (and, in the estimation of many critics, succeeded) by cranking the theme of American dysfunction—Albee’s ace—up to 11. Letts packed the stage with head cases, updating the conventions of naturalistic drama with reality-TV shamelessness.
For Letts, essaying George (an Everest of a role) may present an irresistible opportunity to illuminate the aspects of Albee’s play that galvanized and inspired him. But can the writer who unleashed the clamorousAugust: Osage County render in performance the delicate balance of irony and rue that makes George’s “Dies Irae/up yours” monologue in Act Two one of the American theatre’s most memorable? (I would be interested to see Steppenwolf alum John Malkovich give it a try.)
It’s obvious that Virginia Woolf’s scathing poetry has no place in the Kardashian era of lazily contrived reality-TV “drama.” Yet the play’s metatheatrics (Honey and Nick as onstage audience surrogates) speak to issues of spectatorship that, if anything, are more relevant now than they were in 1962. Against pop culture’s ongoing desensitization, Albee’s language and cunning structure still have the power—five decades later—to jolt us into being appalled, instead of entertained, by cruelty.
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