Arts theater review

It’s all fun and games... unless you’re George and Martha

The Lyric Stage presents Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

8031 msh 0250c
Steven Barkhimer, Paula Plum, Erica Spyres, and Dan Whelton in Lyric Stage’s adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mark S. Howard

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Performed by The Lyric Stage of Boston
Directed by Scott Edmiston
Starring Steven Barkhimer, Paula Plum, Erica Spyres, Dan Whelton
Now Playing through Feb. 12, 2017

The 1950s touted idyllic families befitting equally idyllic houses, yet behind the television ads hid the true underbelly of America. Stripping away this facade reveals human beings far from perfect. As iconic today as it was in 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is Edward Albee’s magnum opus — a satirical examination of the strife of middle aged couple, Martha (Paula Plum) and George (Steven Barkhimer). This casket of a marriage is stripped apart, a brazen act that shows in its candid and raw script.

After a university party, Martha invites the young couple Nick (Dan Whelton) and Honey (Erica Spyres) to her home for drinks. Unfortunately, Nick and Honey become the unwitting victims of the “fun and games” between Martha and George. The middle aged couple’s “fun and games,” as the first act is named, are revealed to be less fun than the title implies. They manipulate each other emotionally with unrelenting selfishness while maintaining the illusion of an acceptable marriage. And of course, the alcohol didn’t help.

A remarkably unpleasant night follows. Martha and George verbally jab at each other in front of their guests. Nick and Honey make attempts to leave but soon become victims of their arguments. While Martha shows Honey the house, George and Nick are left alone in the living room. In another scene, Martha recalls an embarrassing memory when she punched George in front of her father, and in retaliation, George fires a prank rifle at Martha, frightening the two guests. Honey and Nick become the unwitting proxies in the battle between Martha and George who circle around each other like wolves, readying their verbal abuse. Too involved already, they end up staying most of the night (and soon-to-be morning).

In Lyric Stage’s adaptation, Plum’s Martha is not as ferocious as Elizabeth Taylor’s in the iconic 1966 film, but she certainly carried over her complicated personality. In a well-performed scene by Plum, Martha admits to Nick that the only person who ever made her happy was her husband George. This character development feels organic and is treated with a nuanced sensitivity by Plum. “George and Martha — sad, sad, sad…,” she says to Nick.

The other actors also gave solid performances. What is most praiseworthy is the chemistry among the four characters, with Martha and George’s relationship taking center stage. Barkhimer’s George brought in an emotionally charged performance in relation to Plum’s Martha, competing in aggressive verbal spars without losing George’s wry humor. Spyres’s Honey was bubbly and humorous, and her line delivery and comedic timing worked very well, bringing much needed comic relief in such a dark script. Whelton’s Nick was the expected naive professor, but when his character collided with the others, his charged delivery was well done.

The script has held up well. With its raunchy humor and intensely flawed characters, Virginia Woolf? is reminiscent of modern television dramedies like You’re the Worst. Dysfunctional families and tragic marriages seem like modern staples, but for a play performed in the 1960s, it generated controversy for its language and portrayal of such flawed, unlikeable characters. Yet the narrative remains compelling despite the inevitability of a tragic end. Like Martha, we know that their entropic marriage was doomed to fall apart, with no simple solutions. Martha and George choose their illusory, mental games rather than face the reality that without the games and the drinks, there is nothing in their marriage worth salvaging.

Like previous adaptations, this performance ends on a foreboding note. As Nick and Honey make their way out of the house, the lights dim and Martha and George stand side by side. The fun and games are over. The big, bad, Virginia Woolf of reality has reared its head.

George asks Martha, “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

She replies, “I am, George… I am.”