Here are the ingredients in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”: Imbalance, alcoholism, co-dependence, pragmatism, secrets, illusions, delusions and defenses. The proportions of each? It’s up to a director to come up with the recipe. Theatre Exile’s founding artistic director Joe Canuso has, and the result is ferocious, fiery and often funny.
Canuso has four fine actors bringing it off – and I say four, not two. Unlike some productions that focus only on the patterned, toxic rancor between the seemingly complaisant George and his brazenly bitter wife, Martha, Canuso’s pays much attention to Nick and Honey. They are the two young guests George and Martha invite over for a besotted 2 a.m. get-together following a party thrown by Martha’s dad, the president of a college where George remains an associate professor after 23 years. As a result of Canuso’s particular recipe for the play, you get the full force of all four characters Albee creates, and you also get a rich night of ensemble acting – not a simple feat given the unleashed power of Martha, whose character alone can burn up a stage.
“I am the earth mother and you’re all flops,” Catharine Slusar, as Martha, declares – and the audience laughs hesitantly because Slusar’s Martha is both playful and scary, a combo that tastes a lot like a threat. For George, “earth mother” doesn’t begin to cut it: “You’re a spoiled, self-indulgent, willful, dirty-minded, liquor-ridden…” accuses Pearce Bunting, as George, before Martha cuts him off while racing to cut him down.
Few love-hate relationships come up to, or maybe sink to, the level of George and Martha in the American theater – certainly even fewer possess the passionate, exacting poetry that Albee created in 1962. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is as beautiful as it is raw, with its bantering rhythms and delicious litanies – Slusar and Bunting deliver them as everyday speech, making them all the more urgent. She’s loud and intolerant and impulsive in the role and – here’s a nice surprise – so is Bunting. He’s more than the milquetoast who often comes across as George. He’s the sort of guy who has the gumption to take their marriage to a frightening new plateau as their night of game-playing and one-upping melts into the next day.
But what about their guests? In the Theatre Exile production they are played with consummate skill by Jake Blouch — who’s a handsome new prof on campus, a threat to George and a magnet for Martha – and Emily Krause, as a mousy wife who in this production seems to have her head about her even when she’s too drunk to know it. The two of them are master reactors – they say as much with their faces as they do in the lines Albee provides. And they build their characters to be more than the background noise that George and Martha overwhelm.
“What a dump!” says Martha, as she and George enter their home in the small New England college town, minutes before Nick and Honey arrive and they get to know each other in the most basic ways. Indeed, Meghan Jones’ living-room set is dumpy – books all over, curtains askew, wallpaper graying, a bar overextended with half-filled bottles. Good place for the exorcism Albee has in mind.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is produced by Theatre Exile, and runs through May 17 at Plays & Players, on Delancey Place between 17th and 18th Streets. 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.