Its time has come
'Virginia Woolf' is back, and what was once shocking now simply seems contemporary
In 1962, with the Cuban missile crisis looming, a play about a ferociously discordant couple crept onto the Broadway stage. The backers were so worried about this play, filled with bile and profanities, that they did no out-of-town tryouts. They opened right on Broadway, halved the price of the preview tickets, and hoped for the best, according to ''Edward Albee: A Singular Journey," by Mel Gussow.
They needn't have worried. ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was an instant hit. It won five Tonys, including one for best play, and shot Edward Albee into the ranks of major American playwrights. It went on to become a celebrated film in 1966, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, earning 13 Oscar nominations and winning five.
A touring production that came to Boston in 1964 after the New York run closed was greeted by a city censor demanding 12 deletions of irreverent language. The cuts were made. This week, ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," in its full, unexpurgated version, returns for a three-week engagement before beginning a Broadway run. Starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin and directed by Anthony Page, it begins previews at the Wilbur Theatre on Thursday. It opens officially on Feb. 17.
In the play, George and Martha live in a small New England university town. Following a faculty party, Martha, to George's dismay, invites over a new young couple, Nick and Honey. Much insulting, one-upmanship, blatant flirting, unmasking, and confessing takes place, as the relentless engine of George and Martha's dysfunctional marriage, fueled by vast quantities of alcohol, chews everyone up.
The city that greets the play this time around will be profoundly changed from the Boston of 1964. Bed hopping is probably less of a faculty sport, given the paranoia about sexual harassment suits. Faculty wives are apt to be faculty members themselves, not seething with untapped energy. And Martha's line ''Jesus H. Christ" is probably not going to cause gasps of shock.
Despite the societal changes, the 76-year-old Albee says his play and the issues it explores are as contemporary as ever.
''It's a play about two people who are very much in love with each other, despite doing the best they can to destroy each other because of self-hatred and disappointment," Albee said recently during an interview with the playwright and the cast at the new Ritz-Carlton. ''What it's really about is whether we deal honestly and honorably with each other in relationships. Everyone creates fictions, invents stuff. It all depends on whether the fictions are useful or destructive."
''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a beast of a play, both horrifying and funny -- a black comedy that's heavy on the darkness. No one had written anything like it before. And people loved it, because it was true.
The play examines a marriage, says Albee, that's ''gone wrong in certain areas. They still love each other very much. When Martha said to Nick that George was the only person who's ever made her happy, she was not talking just sexually but emotionally, too."
Albee has no idea where this play came from. ''I write them to find out how to write them," he says. ''I'm always surprised, when I'm writing a play, to find out why I'm writing it. I don't pay attention to what it's about. I get to know the characters well, so I can trust them to take over the writing of the play."
''Virginia Woolf" has had a number of lives, from the original production starring Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill to the revival in 1976, directed by Albee, with Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara, which had a pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, to the Taylor and Burton film.
The current revival came about, Albee says, because producer Elizabeth McCann several years ago suggested that after 25 years it was time. It took several years to put the production together. Turner got wind of it and started chasing the role.
''I read the play when I was 20, and I decided when I was 50 I wanted to do it," she says, in the famous husky voice audiences will recognize from films such as ''The War of the Roses" and ''Prizzi's Honor," as well as the plays ''The Graduate," ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and ''Tallulah," which all played here.
''So last year, since I was approaching 50, I started lobbying to get a meeting with Albee," she says. ''He agreed to let me do a reading. He said he had reservations about several actresses who were interested in the role; he wasn't sure they had the stamina for it. It was clear from the reading that I had the stamina that I needed to get through Martha."
The other thing Martha needs is the ability to bray; the script calls for it. ''I am a definite brayer," she says, laughing.
Turner is known for her sensuality and coiled power. She'd never be cast as the vulnerable Amanda Wingfield in ''The Glass Menagerie," and that's fine with her. She doesn't do victims, she says.
Irwin, primarily known for his work as a physical comedian in the New Vaudeville movement, which he started, might seem a counterintuitive choice for George, the beaten-down but ultimately pugnacious failed academic. But he's a keen interpreter of Samuel Beckett, a playwright Albee much admires. He played Lucky in an all-star Lincoln Center production of ''Waiting for Godot." Albee used him in his play ''The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?"
Irwin views this role through the perspective of his previous work.
''Like all of Edward's roles, it's very physical, in that the defeat and ironic response is visceral, not an idea," he says. ''In this epic battle among these people onstage, George would say he's the last one standing. He's a defeated, bleak man, but heroic. And as Edward says, it's George's play, at least for George. It is just the most amazing part."
Albee's 1958 ''The Zoo Story," written in three weeks when he was 30, was his breakthrough play, but ''Virginia Woolf" put him on the map. Always an experimenter, he has a style that embraces both existentialism and absurdism. Not everyone has cared for his plays. Some of his work in the '70s and '80s -- such as ''The Man Who Had Three Arms" and ''The Lady From Dubuque" -- was panned, and he was thought to be washed up.
''Even when my plays were not commercially successful in New York, they were in Europe," he says. ''You learn this: Sometimes you're going to be popular, sometimes not. Bad reviews don't have much to do with the quality of your writing. Just go about your business."
And he has. In 1991, ''Three Tall Women" won him one of his three Pulitzer Prizes. Albee says the ideas come as frequently as they always have. So do the productions. That leaves him standing somewhat alone among the playwrights of his generation.
''There are not many of us," he says. ''It's a tough racket, theater. You have to have a steel spine and a bit of self-certainty to go on. Most people, when they get to my age, keep wondering when middle age is going to end." He laughs.
Now, with ''The Goat," which won the Tony for best play in 2002, running in Denver and Los Angeles, Albee's plays are again being seen all over. There is some talk, he says, about a production of ''The Lady From Dubuque," in Seattle, maybe New York.
''It's nice for people to see all of them over again," he says. ''Compared to when they were reviewed the first time, when they come back a second time they tend to get better reviews. Someone in '62 said 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' should be seen only by dirty-minded women. That added six months to the run."