War is hell. And who knows that better than George and Martha, the marital snipers who face off with such blistering panache in Edward Albee’s peerless tragicomedy of connubial venom, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”?
In the persons of Gregory Linington and Holly Twyford, the Ford’s Theatre revival, directed with sharpshooter’s acumen by Aaron Posner, Washington audiences are getting as good as this toxically funny masterwork gives. Enhanced smartly by Danny Gavigan and Maggie Wilder as the seemingly defenseless younger couple who stumble into George and Martha’s web, the three-act production glides by on a sizzlingly steady current of boozy accusation and twisted mind games. Rarely does so much malice spread so much glee.
If any impression of American life invited the jaundiced eye of Albee — who died last year at 88 — it was the illusion of blissful domesticity. (Not for nothing are the main characters named for the country’s first first family.) “Virginia Woolf,” set in the comfy New England home of George, a history professor who’s never lived up to his early promise, and Martha, the daughter of the college’s legendary, longtime president, is both a biliously revealing drawing-room comedy and a corrosive tragedy about the lies that sustain a marriage through bad times, and worse.
“Where’s my little yum-yum?” George inquires derisively about Martha at one point, expressing the sarcasm-laced duality of the play: They both love and detest each other, a paradox nourished in the contempt they feel over their own weaknesses — and the fact that each knows the other’s vulnerabilities so well. It’s as if they can’t forgive themselves for the way things have turned out, the dissolution of youthful optimism, the neediness that has only grown more intense over the years. In their shared desolation, revolving, most bitterly, around their “son,” they can think of no other course than to impose their titanic sense of disappointment on each other.
And on anyone else who drifts into their paths, the poor fools. In the early-morning hours after a faculty fete, Gavigan’s Nick and Wilder’s Honey become trapped by George and Martha — and by virtue of their own ambitiousness and appetites — in the older couple’s psychodrama. George gives names to the vicious phases of this drunken after-party: “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests.” The “games” are the means by which George and Martha reveal their true gift, for turning pain into entertainment.
It’s because George and Martha are so electrically verbal that “Virginia Woolf” is hilarious, especially when there are a George and Martha who know how to work all the levers of Albee’s vituperative insult machine. Twyford ascends to a level here that counts as yet another high watermark in an exemplary stage career. Wearing a hairstyle reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s in Mike Nichols’s 1966 movie version, Twyford enters laughing, a husky cackle from her gut. Three hours later, she’ll be in tears and in between will present Martha in all her seductive, destructive, childish, self-involved fury. “I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops,” she declares in a thoroughly convincing haze of alcohol and self-pity.
This Martha is earthy all right: You believe in the conquest she’s attempting when she shoots a come-hither gaze at Gavigan’s manly Nick, a newly recruited biology professor with a wandering eye. Twyford’s is a commanding and yet generous performance. The danger with Martha is that she’s such a tornadic force that she can suck all the histrionic air out of the room. Nick and Honey, his giggly and neurotic wife, are simply no match for her. George, too, is potentially mere asphalt to Martha’s steamroller.
But Twyford is not showboating in unleashing Martha’s id. She and Posner leave ample room for Linington. He finds the formidable acerbic edge to George, the mixture of controlled rage and sense of the absurd that stokes the character’s comic fire, that permits George to keep up with Martha, even earning her admiration. Something in Linington’s turn here reveals an aspect of George that’s rarely considered: courage. The actor exhibits it not only in George’s psychological mastery of physically imposing Nick, but also in his dealing forcefully with Martha’s ferocious mocking of his failures. His pugnacious George proves to be a partner for this Martha, in and out of the ring.
Gavigan and Wilder, two of the best young actors in town — his memorable work includes a troubled ex-soldier in Theater J’s “The Admission,” and hers the odd gentile out in Studio Theatre’s “Bad Jews” — contribute first-rate seriocomic performances. The design elements, ranging from Meghan Raham’s realistically lived-in set to Kelsey Hunt’s capri pants and low-cut blouse for Martha and pert party dress for Honey, contribute to a holistic impression of excellence, in what proves to be one of Ford’s Theatre’s finest hours — or in this case, three.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Directed by Aaron Posner. Set, Meghan Raham; costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound and original music, Daniel Kluger; hair and makeup, Anne Nesmith; dialects and voice, Leigh Wilson Smiley; production stage manager, Brandon Prendergast. About 3 hours. Tickets, $17-$64. Through Feb. 19 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Visit fords.org or call 888-616-0270.