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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Actors Theatre

A Classic Case of the Domestic Squabble

Frustratingly verbose games of cat and mouse; privileged yet disgruntled middle-aged harpies having at it; hardly suppressed Electra complexes; emasculated college professors burying their woes in a nightcap and a novel. Yes, my friends, that's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" in a proverbial nutshell. Edward Albee's 1962 play, with its characteristic histrionics and intentional shock value, might seem dated these days, but it did for theater what films like Last Tango in Paris did for cinema -- namely, it created a new vernacular for its form, one which seethed with bitter contempt for traditional family values and canned gender roles. It was a play specific to its epoch, an acrid retort to the safe fantasy of the nuclear family, and a barbed counterpoint to said family's smug (and easily offended) sense of propriety.

Given the context of Albee's scathing drama, it's plain to see why "Virginia Woolf" is considered a period piece, particularly because of the caliber of its performative predecessors and the grating defunctness of Albee's idiom. All the same, the Actors Theatre's recent production brings back memories to true theater people and those who experienced the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton magnum opus. Albee's characters assume their classical perversions in the Actors Theatre's brilliant but understated cast; the ribald shrew Martha (played by Julia McNeal) and the wry yet pitiable George (played by Christian Phillips) once again become our favorite dysfunctional couple, swimming in booze and bathos.

The recent Broadway revival of "Virginia Woolf" was heavily extolled and starred Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner. What the Actors Theatre lacks in star power, it more than makes up for in the claustrophobic intimacy that's at the heart of the play. Albee's play was meant for a small stage, and an equally minimal audience. It's the sort of spectacle that reminds one of the hot discomfort we've all likely experienced while caught in the crossfire of an angry couple's intimate blitzkrieg; when all sorts of embarrassing details that would be more prudently kept under wraps suddenly surface, to the distress of the innocent bystander. That's precisely why the Actors Theatre's cozy little vestibule is perfect for a play like this, a three-hour drama that takes place in the home of George and Martha, a washout history professor and his salacious middle-aged wife, respectively.

"Virginia Woolf" caustically examines the couple's compulsive bad behavior toward each other as they play cat and mouse with their young guests, a neophyte biology professor named Nick (played by Daniel Hart Donoghue) and his delicate, vapid wife Honey (played by Tara Donoghue). George and Martha's relentless sport culminates in various climaxes throughout the course of the evening, and as the couple's tidy front of decorum begins to further crumble, all sorts of seamy secrets are revealed.

McNeal's Martha is a lascivious mess of winks and twitters, a red-haired virago who hits all the right notes time and again. Phillips as the castrated husband is equally excellent, a quietly sharp-tongued brainiac whose inexorable contempt toward the young couple (who presumably symbolize his own lost youth and failed marriage) makes him both sorry and nefarious. Daniel Hart Donoghue is wonderfully smug as the simpering upstart Nick, while his real-life wife Tara has occasional moments of brilliance as Honey, the least prominent of all the characters.

Of course, even if the cast is riveting, a three-hour show of histrionics and connubial cruelty can only sustain itself for so long. Detractors of Albee often chide him for overt snarkiness, and certainly, the mean-spiritedness of "Virginia Woolf" gets a bit old at times. (And what's up with the young couple, Nick and Honey, sticking around for as long as they do to watch George and Martha duke it out?) In time, the bickering couples begin to aggravate one's sensibility, and even to transform into parodies of their own playacting.

But overall, the admirably paced direction of Keith Phillips and Kenneth Vanderberg move the show along in places where it could otherwise be merely plodding. And when all's said and done, "Virginia Woolf" triggers an interestingly dualistic impression in the viewer: one of both embarrassed voyeurism, and of the intrigue that continues to be roused by the clichés and quirks at the heart of marital discontent.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs through September 10, Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 7 pm.

Actors Theatre of San Francisco
Main Stage
Tickets: $30 general admission, $20 students and seniors, $10-30 sliding scale Thursday nights
Box Office: (415) 296-9179