Wednesday, January 23, 2013

To the Moon, Martha, to the Moon!

Saturday we went to the Little Theater to see their latest production, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The January-February production of each year is always a heavy drama. The first year we had season tickets, the production was Arcadia, which I actually liked, unlike the 60% or so of the audience that left at intermission and didn’t return. John thinks they left because of the bad language. I thought it was because the plot is hard to follow, but I suppose if you are having trouble following a plot, profanity stands out all the more. In subsequent years we’ve had A Man for All Seasons, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and A Streetcar Named Desire. The lead actress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a professional who was paid for her performance, and gave a short acting workshop while she was here, but I thought the actress who played Big Mama blew her off the stage.

I was not looking forward to seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I had never seen either the play or the movie, but I had read the play and found it pointlessly depressing. Since we had the tickets anyway, I tried to cheer myself that maybe it had redeeming features when actually performed.

I never thought anything would make me feel nostalgic for A Streetcar Named Desire, which just goes to show, never say never. While I didn’t find any of the characters in Streetcar likable, I could at least sympathize with them. The characters in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I just wished dead. If they actually had been drinking at the rate the script called for, they would have succumbed to alcohol poisoning long before the audience succumbed to a numb wish for it just to be over, already.

I know a chunk of the audience agreed with me because everyone sitting to my left kept talking about how bad the play was and how they were just staying to see how it ended. John kept talking about how bad it was too, but was reluctant to act on my common sense observation that we could leave. (When I say “kept talking”, I mean during the two intermissions. Nobody was actually rude enough to talk during the play.)

The acting wasn’t the problem, either. The actor who played George has also acted professionally, including bit parts in some recent movies, and the actress who played Martha has extensive amateur experience. The two junior leads weren’t as accomplished, but they weren’t bad. I didn’t get the impression that these were dismal performances, just dismal people.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is very much a piece of its time. The main character, Martha, is disappointed that her husband George hasn’t succeeded in his academic career and become the obvious successor to her father as the head of the college where he teaches. Neither Martha nor the playwright had the imagination to see Martha as the successor, at least if she had been willing to put in the hard work required to get an advanced degree (which women were doing even back in the WW2 days, which is when she would have had to have started according to the play’s chronology.) True, back in those days she would have had an almost impossible task to be taken seriously as a president of a co-ed college, and so probably still would have ended up a disappointed, philandering drunk, but she would have been a far more interesting disappointed, philandering drunk than she is in the drama as it stands.

Martha doesn’t come across as a person who has a passion for any kind of academic subject, and if she were more self-aware, she might have had more sympathy for her husband’s failings, but then we wouldn’t have a play. Of course, not having a play, at least this play, doesn’t exactly have a downside.

Even if Martha had taken the mid-century female risk of backing her husband George against her daddy when George wanted to publish his novel, her life may have turned out better, and more importantly, there would have been no play. 

I know Albee is supposed to be some kind of genius and “his works are considered well-crafted, often unsympathetic examinations of the modern condition,” (wikipedia) but if what you want is a dramatic treatment of the fine line between love and hatred in a mid-century marriage, any episode of The Honeymooners did it far better.

I’m serious. Ralph and Alice had a contentious relationship, and his threats along the lines of “One of these days, Alice, POW, right in the kisser,” although never acted on, made even some 1950’s audiences uneasy. Yet it was clear that they (unlike George and Martha) had each other’s backs. What made them wildly popular was that they were not the romanticized married couples of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. They were poor, harried, and contentious, but they were believable. Better yet, they were likable. You wanted to spend Saturday nights with them.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also has the theme of reality versus illusion running through it, as each of the couple’s stories and games is revealed to have another side to it. As George says, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

There again, I think The Honeymooners comes out on top, although the illusions are purely Ralph’s as he drags his buddy Norton into one get rich quick scheme after another. His illusions, though, are more true-to-life than George and Martha’s tall tales, and therefor far sadder when once again they fail him. You really hope against hope that this time it will work, instead of peeking out from one eye asking, “Can I go home yet?”

Besides, Alice and Tracy actually have conversations. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , George and Martha have conversations, George and Nick have conversations, and Martha and Nick have a conversation, but conversations between Martha and Honey all take place offstage, even though one of the conversations triggers the tragic events of the play. It’s not just that the play fails the Bechdel Test, it’s almost as if there is an Anti-Bechdel Test that it is determined to pass.

But the scariest revelation of the author’s view of women is given in Martha’s soliloquy, in which she explains to Nick why George is the only man who has ever made her happy. I’ll spare you the long form and sum it up as “Bitches be crazy, amirite?”

On our way home my husband complained, “I think they could have ended that play after the first ten minutes.” On the other hand, he appreciated one line, when George said, “I’m six years younger than you, and always will be.” He’s six years younger than me, and as he reminded me, “always will be."

“I know,” I said. “I’m counting on you to take care of me in my old age.”

He made some smart-ass response in return, but what I heard was, “Baby, you’re the greatest.”

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