There are many feline qualities about the Geffen Playhouse's production of Edward Albee's iconic and smart "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The play itself bites and scratches like a riled-up tabby while you laugh at its zany antics. It purrs and tumbles while chasing the thread of a storyline known only to the two hosts—George (Zachary Quinto) and Martha (Calista Flockhart)—of a cocktail party gone terribly wrong.
Most catlike of all in this production, Flockhart immerses herself physically and emotionally in every gesture and word, playing Martha as coy yet preening, elegant yet crass, irresistibly vivacious even while hissing, clawing, and nipping—especially when she knows it hurts.
Quinto is her impassive foil, his George staid yet acerbic, stolid yet vulnerable. Both he and Flockhart deliver Albee’s pointed dialogue and rhythmic lines with utter investment, heightening the play’s near constant emotional devastations, like waves pounding the shore during a storm, or George’s continual back and forth trips to the bar to refill booze glasses.
Besides each other, George and Martha play their ravaging cat-and-mouse games (subtly at first) with two unwitting guests—Nick (Graham Phillips) and Honey (Aimee Carrero), a young couple newly arrived to the academic circle of a New England college in 1962.
Nick teaches biology whereas George is in the history department and Martha the daughter of the college president. Martha had high hopes for George but now resorts to cuckolding him with younger faculty like Nick. Supplementing Gordon Greenberg’s direction, Mia Schachter serves as “intimacy director,” helping make Nick and Martha’s interactions believably sensual.
Nick and George’s conversation about chromosomes is also believable now, though the play was written 60 years ago. That discussion—reducing people to chemicals, along with the excessive drinking and dagger-like barbs—add up to a cynical view of human relationships barely balanced by the play’s deft humor. Later, when the dust settles and we stop reeling, we do get a glimpse of humanity, even love, that resonates powerfully. But in the meantime, it’s literally and uproariously no holds barred between George and Martha.
Phillips is suitably handsome and boyish as Nick, with Honey relegated to hilarious one-liners as she gets increasingly tipsy, which Carrero delivers with natural comic timing, along with delightful abstract dancing. Honey’s later distress when the discussion turns to pregnancy is somewhat less believable, though, but this is after she has spent some time with a bottle on the bathroom floor.
The finely-detailed set (Wilson Chin) is a spacious, warm, but well-worn living room filled with books—“What a dump!” Martha exclaims early on—allowing the actors room to move, cushions to throw themselves on and glasses and bottles to throw against the bar and fireplace.
Costumes by Alejo Vietti are appropriate to the time, with Nick’s fitted suit and Honey’s full-skirted dress reminiscent of the Kennedys. George is dressed as the stereotypical frumpy professor, with loose brown slacks and gray cardigan. Martha undergoes three outfit changes, of which a two-piece red dress with matching kitten heels is most flattering, though she spends the most time in black cigarette pants and tight teal blouse, ending up in a looser beige top—and cozying up in George’s sweater—as her defenses dwindle toward dawn.
Like Martha, we are left hollowed out by the end, having romped for three hours (with two 10-minute intermissions) in Albee’s intense emotional sandbox. Though long, director Greenberg deserves credit for the production’s excellent pacing and never stagnant staging. And through it all, Flockhart enthralls with her riveting turn as Martha—a middle-aged woman resisting being crushed by life with all she has, regardless of the cost to her or anyone else. Win or lose, the play seems to say, what matters is how you play your games.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Gil Cates Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through May 29, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $149 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing during the performance are required.