Through Feb. 27
Mad Cow Theatre
105 S. Magnolia Ave.
At some point, everyone has been dragged to a dismal dinner party at which they were forced to endure horrid hosts – the kind that make you contemplate cutting your wrists with a butter knife. But unless you’ve gone on a double date with Sarah Palin and Fred Phelps, you’ve likely never partaken of a party as painful as the one put on by the protagonists of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Here’s some advice: If a harried history professor named George (Stephan Jones) and his hooch-swilling harridan of a spouse, Martha (Peg O’Keef), ever invite you over for a nightcap, learn from the mistakes of genial geneticist Nick (Tim Williams) and his mousey spouse, Honey (Heather Leonardi) – get the hell out while you still have some scraps of your dignity and liver left.
In recent decades, masters of misanthropy such as David Mamet and Neil LaBute have made profanity a mainstay of the modern stage. But any playwright fascinated with flinging filth owes an enormous debt to Albee’s 1962 masterpiece, which unleashed an earthquake upon American theater audiences with the first screamed “fuck you!” In Mad Cow’s exceptional new production, watching George and Martha turn their handsome home, brimming with books and bottles (another beautifully detailed set by Tom Mangieri) into a bloody battleground is as uncomfortably exhilarating as ever, even if the impact can’t be as shocking for today’s inured audiences as it must have been 50 years ago.
I’ve seen several tellings of this tale over the years, both on screen (the famous Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton film) and stage (most recently in Orlando with John DiDonna and the late Kate Singleton). For this production, director J. Barry Lewis illuminates the fast-paced humor and compelling charisma that buttress George and Martha’s brutal “fun and games,” finally answering for me the obvious question of why their victims/guests don’t just go home.
Lewis makes thoughtful use of his first-class cast; the only sign that he’s a newcomer to Mad Cow’s oddly shaped stage is an unfortunate tendency to put actors into positions that force the audience to watch the backs of their heads.
Each performer presents a virtual acting master class over the course of this three-plus-hour epic. Jones infuses his henpecked husband with enough huevos to make a suitable sparring partner for his spiteful spouse; Williams’ charm and intelligence underline the creepiness underlying Nick’s nice-guy facade; and Leonardi is terrific in the usually thankless role of Nick’s timid wife, transforming into a tipsy, tittering time-bomb. O’Keef has played iconic addicts before (as in a 2004 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night that I assistant directed), but has never before been so believably boozy, brazenly bawdy or beautifully broken. With agonized keening in the play’s ending moments, O’Keef’s Martha makes an emotional connection with Jones’ George that opened my eyes to a previously unconsidered notion: Instead of a soulless storm of psychological violence, Albee’s play is actually a love story – albeit one rendered in caustic comebacks instead of kisses.
A final warning before attending this house party from hell: All that onstage screaming and swilling sure made me thirsty, so bring a few bucks for the bar and a strong bladder.
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