Frightening Families

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not local audiences or producers apparently, considering that not one, but two productions of Edward Albee's exhausting, three-act play could be seen in Los Angeles over the weekend--both playing to mostly full houses.

The first version, which closed Sunday, was in Hollywood. The Stella Adler Theater hosted a bare-bones staging of Albee's play directed by Timothy McNeil--who also doubled as George. The role of Martha was played by McNeil's wife, Bonnie McNeil. One might think that having husband and wife play Albee's bickering, married couple would give the performance an added kick--after all that's what make the film version (starring the then wedded Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) such a sensation.

The McNeil's chemistry doesn't translate into added claustrophobia or complexity; what does translate is Mr. McNeil's desire to uproot the play from its New England setting. No longer do George and Martha appear to be rotting remnants of once smart, stylish prep students. Here, the McNeils' portray Albee's couple as two low-class louts who likely never had much potential or glamour. Instead of a tony, liberal arts university on the eastern seaboard, George and Martha's voices, body language, and home furnishings suggest that George is teaching at a rural junior college in San Bernardino County.

It was interesting to see this small, scrappy staging--especially when the more traditional, touring revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is also currently playing downtown at the Ahmanson. Anthony Page's production ran on Broadway, then London's West End, and is now traveling around the country with its two stars Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin.

Irwin is the one genuinely novel element of this version. If Richard Burton gave George a faded romantic flicker of Dylan Thomas; Irwin suggests Truman Capote had he been straightened out as an undergraduate--courtesy of a domineering coed. The actor makes George as diminutive and ineffectual as possible. When Martha screams, "If you existed, I'd divorce you. I can't even see you...I haven't been able to see you for years," the insults ring true. Irwin's smallness then gives George's barbs an extra punch because you don't see them coming.

This is the opposite of Kathleen Turner's performance which turns the character of Martha into a Wagnerian hausfrau. On Broadway, Turner was a bit of a ham, but here at the Ahmanson she mugs and plays up Martha's bluster with full force. She earns laughs, but any intimacy the show previously had is gone. It's hard to tell whether this coarsening is due to the fatigue of hundreds of performances or simply a response to the size and acoustics of the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre; regardless, the effect is to make an already conventional revival feel even more staid.

Luckily, Albee's play still delivers some visceral thrills. The long exchange in Act II between George and Nick (well played by David Furr) shows the playwright's fluency in awkward conversations. Plus, Albee's recent, revised version of the text eliminates the more cloying passages about George and Martha's imagined child.

Besides the cretinous performance by Kathleen Early as Honey, there is little that's objectionable in this Woolf?--but perhaps that's the problem. What's missing in Page's production is any connection to the play's absurdist spirit. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was written at the same time as Beckett's Happy Days and Ionesco's Exit the King.

For a dysfunctional family portrait that feels at home in the Theatre of the Absurd, The Lost Studio on La Brea is presenting a late work by Albee's peer from the modernist movement of the 1960's, Harold Pinter. The 1993 drama, titled Moonlight, consists of abstract fragments that show a family--or what appears to be a family, one never can be sure with Pinter--coming apart at the seams. Moonlight is a confounding, unfocused play, but rather than try to harness its diffuse beams, director John Pleshette simply lets it shine in our eyes for a brief, blinding moment. It's an uneven production, but since there's no reason to be afraid of Virginia Woolf, it's reassuring to know that when it comes to plays about unhappy families, we should still be afraid of Harold Pinter.

Moonlight continues at the Lost Studio through April 1; the touring production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs until March 18 at the Ahmanson Theatre.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image: Cinda Jackson and Mitchell Ryan in Moonlight, written by Harold Pinter and directed by John Pleshette at the Lost Studio Theatre. Photo by David Elzer.