It all begins “after hours” with the simplest of games: “Anyway, Bette Davis turns around, puts down her groceries and says, ‘What a dump!’ I want to know the name of the picture!” demands Martha, and husband George teases her in a patronizing deadpan. But when he announces a nightcap, Martha rasps, “Are you kidding? We got guests coming over!”
And so the real games begin, more and more in earnest, as a faculty couple of a small New England university town entertains the newcomers met that night at the president’s party, with self-importance, sentiment and language itself flayed like skin protecting vital organs, in Edward Albee’s night of games to end ‘em all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, mid-run in an engaging production at Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse.
“You’re always springing things on me.” George, the history teacher, plays the passive-aggressive wounded party. Yet it’s he who takes the lead early as grandmaster, archly admonishing all comers—until the cat’s out of the bag, and the real confrontations begin.
“I warned you not to go too far,” he cautions Martha, who shoots back, “I’m just beginning!”
Director Richard Robert Bunker has led his well-cast quadriga of academic drayhorses, all pulling in different directions, through an unusually thoughtful gauntlet. Albee’s masterpiece, bristling with hostility and power plays, is often acted out nearly over-the-top from the start. This version takes a different tack: the Shock and Awe of ’60s revelatory primal scenes has had the veneer stripped off; it’s not Liz and Dick at it again, but something deadlier, a war of attrition that’s continued long after the real revelation should have set in.
There’s tension alive in every line, but the menace is somehow quieter, and maybe deadlier. The double-binds and blinds can be scrutinized more by the engrossed audience, who laugh at the genuinely funny—if dire—exchanges of the first two acts like a malign situation comedy. As it gets gamier, a few holdouts in the house light up at the telling black humor of a collision between the old and the recently married, as well as the adroit sarcasms that degenerate to bodyslams about careerism, “family values” and the death of love.
Sue Trigg, who brilliantly directed last year’s Death of a Salesman at Altarena, is an exceptional Martha—Martha who rasps out “I don’t bray!”—cackling, coarse, randy, taking the piss out of George, sometimes barreling drunkenly cross-stage, sometimes arching like a cat ... complemented by suavely underhanded Robert Rossman as George the fake-out artist, bending words around like spoons to juice the truth out telepathically.
Their weird duet—Martha’s soliloquy on the eve of their absent, much-spoken of son’s twenty-first birthday, while George intones the Requiem—is a high point, yet one not dizzy with histrionics as much as deadly accurate, real irony.
The younger generation’s not to be slighted in the face of this habitual carnage: Jamie Olsen plays Nick with a patronizing smirk that widens into a half-condescending, half-shellshocked leer as the proceedings suck him in and spit him out. As Honey, his “slim-hipped” wife, fated to play the dummy in this four-handed bluffing match, Lisa Price begins as an ex-sorority girl three sheets to the wind, vacant-eyed, drowsy, flashing an empty grin and tittering at everything, finally dancing alone like a snockered Isadora Duncan as cheerleader, before stretching out on the cool bathroom tiles and peeling the labels off brandy bottles.
“If I can’t do my interpretive dance, I don’t want to dance with anyone!” Honey declares—and George invites: “Let’s just sit here and watch.” And that’s what we do in the audience, siding with no one, as they play Humiliate The Host, Hump The Hostess, Get The Guests—and the final game of George and Martha’s declared Total War: “There’s something in the bone ... and that’s what you gotta get.”
That’s the game, the marriage, the career—all the shared secrets—turned inside out for all to see. And whether George is just a gutless wonder or perhaps novelist-manqué, or Martha just a bitch or really the one who wears the pants, the end still puts to bed all the sound and fury we were so lately laughing and wincing at, these characters left only with each other as they leave the stage.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF
8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 1 at Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. $17-$20.