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Theatre in Review: Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf (Elevator Repair Service/Abrons Arts Center)

Vin Knight, Mike Iveson. Photo: Joan Marcus

It is, of course, inevitable: Yesterday's iconoclast must become part of the establishment and, therefore, ripe for overturning. When Edward Albee wrote Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in 1962, many theatregoers were shocked and disgusted by its abrasive language and naked display of aggression; even more so were they appalled at the play's central revelation, of a twisted fantasy designed to keep the lid on a marriage that is forever on the edge of blowing apart. A great deal of water has flowed under the theatrical bridge since then, and now Albee is comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of great American playwrights, regularly receiving first-class revivals. Such status, of course, makes him an irresistible target for succeeding generations. Fair enough, but, in the future, I hope he is spoofed by cleverer folk than the gang behind Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf.

Kate Scelsa's script retains the setup of Albee's original: George and Martha -- here given the surname Washington, an allusion to the rogue theory that Albee had penned a state-of-the-nation play -- invite over for late-night drinks the younger Nick and Honey, resulting in a cascade of invective, attempted seductions, and sadistic game-playing. Among her inventions: Martha is openly interested in swapping spouses, both George and Nick are closet cases, and all of the play's secrets, including Honey's hysterical pregnancy and George and Martha's fantasy son, are out in the open. There are additional would-be shockers: Nick dreams of getting pregnant and busies himself in his free time writing Twilight-style erotic fan fiction involving sexual encounters between vampires and werewolves.

It's not just the general absence of wit, although the parade of sophomoric semi-jokes makes for some notably heavy going. John Collins' production relies on crude bits of staging, such as the moment when Martha, sitting on the couch, pats Honey's hand while reaching up Nick's pantleg. Nick confesses to having had a meeting with Martha about his career prospects; she adds "I just happen to hold all of my meetings in my vagina." There's also a running gag about Martha's extreme loathing of Woody Allen -- Martha burns sage to rid the house of his aura -- as well as random jokes and references name-checking Harry Connick, Jr., Hedda Gabler, Joan Crawford, and Arthur Miller, among others. Any five minutes of Albee's play are funnier than the totality of Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf.

And it's not just the substandard performances, either, although, again, one is amazed to see the members of a company who -- whatever else one wants to say about their work -- have always executed their concepts with remarkable precision behaving so sloppily. But Annie McNamara, as Martha, lacks any menace or sexuality, and her comic timing is off. Vin Knight could probably play George in a straight-up revival of Virginia Woolf, but here he descends into hideous overemoting, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. Mike Iveson is a bit better as the passive Nick, who exists to be tossed about and groped by the others, and Lindsay Hockaday is okay as an eleventh-hour mystery guest, who arrives to ring down the curtain. But the only performer with solid comic technique is April Matthis as Honey, even to the point of bringing some poignancy to these otherwise flattish proceedings. The funniest line of the evening is when, dropping her smiley attitude, Honey grouses, "As if tenure was such a great thing. We'll be stuck is this post-irony suburban nightmare for the rest of our lives."

The main problem is that Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf has but one point to make, which it does with thudding repetition. As Scelsa puts it in an interview in the program, "For most of Albee's play we see Martha as this incredible feminist character, in that she and her husband are on equal footing, and that's what makes it so fascinating to watch, and fun to play. But in the end of Albee's play Martha is defeated -- by the idea of motherhood. That never really rang true for me." We can leave aside the characterization of a self-destructive alcoholic fantasist as a "feminist;" this is 2018 and apparently everything must re-evaluated in terms of male-female power dynamics, no matter how reductive the results. We get closer to the mark when Martha conceives the idea of "Buzzfeed's top ten ways to tell that you're a tragic female protagonist in a sensitive man's creative fantasy." And there's the moment when, sending George off to bed, she says, "Remember, mommy's not a monster. Or if she is, she's a new kind of monster and one that you deserve because you've spent a bunch of decades f--king everything up."

It's true that one could write volumes -- or, perhaps, an amusing play -- about the preponderance of monster wives and mothers in postwar American drama and literature. Scelsa, however, can't decide if the malefactors are men -- or gay men, in particular. George says, "The thing about a male writer is that he's writing about male sexuality. Even if he's imagining it as female sexuality," and, as previously mentioned, Nick fantasizes about getting pregnant. Both characters are gay, remember, and George's academic specialty is Tennessee Williams, from whom he quotes liberally. (At one point, he does one of Maggie's speeches from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof while pawing at Nick. George also says that Williams' plays should only be performed by men.) And, as Martha says, "Tennessee Williams was a pathetic alcoholic who projected his own victim complex and internalized shame about his sexuality onto totally unrealistic depictions of hysterical women."

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf, but I certainly never thought its author would come so dangerously close to resurrecting the homophobic canard -- espoused in the 1960s by the New York Times drama critic Stanley Kauffmann and William Goldman in his book The Season -- that gay playwrights like Williams and Albee were poisonous queens who penned delirious fantasies because, in their jealousy of normal, right-thinking heterosexuals, they were unable to understand real women and men. This probably explains why George spends the latter part of the play in a muumuu and turban, delivering his lines in a nails-on-a-blackboard screech -- a performance that would get him kicked out of the tackiest drag club.

The entire production design seems to have been conceived around an admittedly impressive, late-in-the-action coup de theatre; before that, Louisa Thompson's scenery of fabric walls wrapped around metal structures, given rather flat lighting by Ryan Seelig, creates the feeling of watching a television sketch. Their work improves considerably in the later stretch. Kaye Voyce's costumes are amusing riffs on what she might have designed for a production of the real Virginia Woolf. Ben Williams' sound design is highly effective in the infernal finale; however, early on, when Martha puts on cocktail music, the sound emanating from the stage-right speaker is intrusive, making it hard to concentrate on the dialogue.

The production has been billed as "a loving homage [to] and fierce, feminist take-down" of Albee's masterpiece. This is something of a misrepresentation: The "loving" part is missing in action, and the word "fierce" hardly seems to apply to these sophomoric slapdash antics. Indeed, at seventy-five minutes, it plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch that has unaccountably been allowed to fill the entire time slot. Satirists must be careful about whom they take on; if you can't beat Albee at the game of wit, you're taking a big, big risk. Besides this, the biggest disappointment about Everything's Fine With Virginia Woolf is that, in her attempt to advance the cause of women, Scelsa has to trash gay artists who faced challenges that probably she can only imagine. -- David Barbour

(12 June 2018)

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