The first real dagger of the evening comes early.
“Lay off my father,” snaps Martha, aka theater’s most famous frustrated 1960s faculty wife. Leslie Martin, who brings the character in Edward Albee’s classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to life in an outstanding Artists’ Repertory Theatre production at the Severance Theatre, imbues her words to her husband with a steely, razor-sharp menace that could be the precursor to a “Game of Thrones”-style killing spree.
Up till this point the slings and arrows in this whimsically ferocious outing have been of the play-fighting variety, as we watch one of the famous sparring couples in American theater history — Martha and her professor husband, George, played with towering skill and feeling by Brad Myers — spar with each other in an evening of “fun and games.” Martha’s father is president of the small New England college at which her husband works, and even though both enjoy mocking the old man, there are lines that can be crossed.
One of the great strengths of “Virginia Woolf” is in the way it can turn dangerous on you in a split-second. I love how this production, directed by Myers, makes you feel that danger. But this is more than the story of an alcohol-fueled raging couple. The play is built on a toxic relationship, and yet Albee keeps us guessing throughout as to where these characters truly stand.
There are far wider more perilous lines than sniping about Martha’s father that are crossed later in the play, but even when things get uglier — and, oh, how ugly they get — there’s always a sense of ambiguity.
Set in George and Martha’s shabby campus home, the action takes place all in one night after a faculty party. Even though it’s 2 a.m., Martha invites a new faculty couple over for post-party drinks. Nick (Justin Ringhofer) and his wife, Honey (Bridget Martin), show up at the doorstep with the polite, sheepish expressions of those who are intensely regretting the acceptance of a drunkenly offered late-night invitation.
What happens between the four is vicious, chilling, hilarious and at times tremendously tender. Myers directs the show with a light but sturdy hand. It helps that he’s strong in his own role — a quality shared by his three fellow cast members. At the performance I saw on Saturday of opening weekend, I was wowed at one time or another by each of the four: Leslie Martin’s pained and agitated exuberance; Myers’ brittle and hurt silences; Ringhofer’s shift from earnestness to cold calculation; Bridget Martin’s sadly dashed optimism.
Through it all, an odd and thrilling sense of absurdism emerges — the feeling that with these characters we’re watching a skewed sense of “normal.” The thrilling part, really, is that all our lives are similarly skewed in one way or the other. What differs is the degree — and the willingness to let others know about it.
I have a few quibbles: I wish the lighting design could be more nuanced. The performances and direction in this production help set a “No Exit” surrealness to the proceedings — a sense of being trapped forever in a never-ending hellish night — but the lights could do more to suggest that intensity. And while I enthusiastically applaud the direction and performances, there’s one interlude in the show, in the second act, as George and Nick parry in an extended conversation while the women are out of the room, that feels mushy to me. I wasn’t bounced around enough as audience member between cordiality and menace.
That said, this is an exemplary production — one of the best of the year locally. Long before there were games involving hunger, George and Martha set the standard for weird, memorable and dangerous antics. It turns out that when you’re in the audience, you’re part of the game. And you’re never quite sure how and when you’ll be played.