- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

If open communication is the secret to a successful marriage, George (Bill Irwin) and Martha (Kathleen Turner) have one for the record books. The steady torrent of complaints and putrid resentment may, on the surface, indicate a long-standing matrimonial grudge match, yet the volume and infinite variety of their toxic verbiage has made their union airtight and impenetrable.

Divorce is for mere mortals. These titans of misery will go to their graves locked in battle and gasping for the last word. For George and Martha, nothing else comes close — pleasure and contentment are fleeting, but to make someone this miserable, now that’s an achievement.

There’s a lurid, perverse joy in watching this touring revival of the 1962 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which playwright Edward Albee revised for the 2004 Tony Award-winning Broadway run to emphasize the fun-and-games aspect of George and Martha’s marriage, set in a New England college town in 1960.

The play, directed with broad flourish by Anthony Page, takes place during one long, drunken night after a faculty party, but you soon discover that the couple’s bitter, shared stories have created an intricate alternate reality, somewhat like what happens when you play the Sims or the Civilization series computer role-playing games.

It’s all a game of intellect and strategy for this acrimonious couple, although — as with too much time spent in cyberspace — the fantasy begins to become more intoxicating and urgent than real life.

In real life, however, you wouldn’t want to share the same airspace as George and Martha — their bile alone would desiccate your liver even before your first glass of cocktail sherry. But at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater you can watch these old gladiators hack away at each other with comfortable, ironic detachment.

Distance does not detract from the malignant magnificence of Miss Turner’s and Mr. Irwin’s performances. They let it all hang out and display an exultant ugliness — not the artful dishevelment you normally see with screen and stage stars. This is ugly on the cellular level. Miss Turner at times looks unapologetically slovenly and coarse, yet her abominable behavior gives Martha a life force that goes beyond appearance. Martha is greedily, grossly alive.

On the other hand, Mr. Irwin’s George seems to have died years ago from disappointment and neglect. He leaves behind a husk — indeed, Mr. Irwin moves with the jerky awkwardness of someone who has forgotten he has a body — and an exacting mind capable of knowing precisely what words will cut most swiftly and deeply. These utterances he delivers with mostly chilling indifference, as if droning on in an introductory course to a group of bored freshmen. Even his rages carry a sepulchral chill.

George and Martha’s combat is so epic, you nearly forget that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has two more characters, newborn lambs Nick (David Furr), an ambitious young biology professor, and his bewildered wife, Honey (Kathleen Early). Mr. Furr’s and Miss Early’s portrayals are vivid and eccentric enough to make you believe Nick and Honey are George and Martha 20 years ago. The two couples stare from across the shabby living room as if looking into a mirror, no one wanting to face up to what they see.

Marriage ain’t for sissies, my mother used to say.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” shows a union that is warped, but unbreakable. George and Martha not only created a life together, but also formed fantasy worlds designed to provoke and amuse each other — their unhappiness has no bounds.

****

WHAT: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Jan. 28.

TICKETS: $25 to $78

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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