Edward Albee combined a question he saw written on a mirror, “Who’s afraid of life without false illusions?,” with a reference to the depressive modernist writer for the title of one of his best-known plays. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? took Broadway by storm in 1962, winning the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and three Tonys, but it was passed over for the Pulitzer Prize as a “dirty play.”
Like spiders, Martha and George lure two hapless flies into their parlor, but then trap themselves in their own parlor games. During an alcohol-soaked night, the sodden sophisticates, with practiced savagery, keep at their ongoing private battle, which passes right over the heads of their guests, younger couple Honey and Nick. Martha goes after George with a will, harping on his inadequacies. Articulate warfare is the way they connect: blood and carnage as a defense against reality. When George says he can’t stand it, Martha yells, “You married me for it.”
The movie version brought together director Mike Nichols (his first film) with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, already notorious for their stormy relationship. There was typical Hollywood pressure to simplify and clarify ambiguous story elements, but Nichols held out to retain the play’s lack of clarity and preserved almost all of the language. (Jack Warner paid the $5,000 fine for leaving the play’s profanities in the movie.) Elizabeth Taylor gave what was arguably the performance of her career, winning an Oscar. People hadn’t realized she was that good. Burton, who also deserved an Oscar, was nominated, but didn’t win.
Brawling in a glass house
Theatre Exile has staged a stunning production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Music, including “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” wafts into the house as the audience enters: The story starts before the three-hour play begins. Pearce Bunting and Catharine Slusar, the well-matched leads, come off as a longtime couple who know which buttons to push. Bunting’s weary rumpled professor, who only appears to have given up, is pitch-perfect, and Slusar digs into Martha in a nuanced performance as a shrewd harridan who loves to brawl but lives in a glass house. Jake Blouch and Emilie Krause do wonderful work as Nick and Honey, who are clearly out of their league.
Director Joe Canuso captures the subtle and complicated shifting of ground and wider cultural references hidden under piles of hurled abuse. Disclosures slowly crescendo, and nothing comes off as stage business. His smart staging hits an ideal tempo, not rushing and not dragging, except a little bit in the third act, and that’s Albee’s fault.
George and Martha’s sometimes subtle, sometimes screaming brawl sustains its funny and smart-alecky crust for a long time. But later the laughs evaporate as carefully nursed illusions topple. I left the theater wrung out from the power of the performance.
A year after they did Virginia Woolf, Taylor and Burton starred in Franco Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew. Most consider it a lesser accomplishment, but many appreciated the clash of Shakespearean actor Burton’s Petruchio and Elizabeth’s unstudied Kate. The Lantern Theater Company’s current production of The Taming of the Shrew achieves an exceptionally close pairing of language with dramatic movement. The result is precise yet apparently freewheeling — the idiosyncratic comic action is a trademark of the company’s Shakespearean comedies.
A third Taylor-Burton vehicle, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, was less successful. The Broadway run closed early. New York Times critic Frank Rich grumbled that most of it had “all the vitality of a Madame Tussaud's exhibit and all the gaiety of a tax audit,” and added that “Nothing that happens at any time has any bearing on Coward's classic 1930 comedy.”
Nevertheless, their Private Lives came to Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre in July 1983 (link to a snippet here). Critics were not fond of the show, although some allowed that the Philadelphia production was better than Broadway version. Taylor, who produced, banked on the theatrical exposure of celebrity private lives to draw the crowd. Her gamble worked, audiences ate it up, all the shows sold out, and a lot of money was made. According to Burton’s diary, though, Private Lives hit a bit too close to home, making the project difficult. (He also had some concerns about the effect of Virginia Woolf on the couple’s tempestuous private life in the ’60s.)
These three Burton/Taylor shows titillated the audience by appearing to splay Taylor and Burton’s personal issues across the stage. Although their age has passed, the plays live on, and it’s great to remember these two iconic giants who’ve hovered briefly in Philadelphia’s zeitgeist.
Naomi Orwin's review of Theatre Exile's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Naomi Orwin’s review of Private Lives at the Walnut Street Theatre this past winter.
Above right: Liao and Hernandez in the Lantern Shrew. Photo by Mark Garvin.