During the first intermission of the new Steppenwolf Theatre Co. take on “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” that just opened at the Booth Theatre, the stranger to my right leaned over and whispered, with relief: “I’m so glad I’m single.”
Who could blame her? If you read Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in high school, or saw the bitter, foaming 1966 film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, you walked away with firm feelings about marriage, and they weren't warm and fuzzy. But a funny thing happens by the time this “Woolf” stops howling, three-plus hours in: It stops feeling like an argument against coupledom and becomes testimony in favor of it.
“George and Martha. Sad, sad, sad,” Martha wonders aloud, in a moment of awareness that her husband is the only one who can keep up with her sordid games. Sad? Maybe not so much.
Tracy Letts and Amy Morton, the playwright and star of 2007’s Pulitzer-winning “August: Osage County,” here face off as George and Martha, paunchy history professor (that is, associate professor) at a small New England college, and his wife, daughter of the college president. That Letts and Morton have played husband and wife some eight times as Steppenwolf ensemble members is blatantly obvious after the first minutes of their hostile, well-worn banter.
As Albee devotees know, “Woolf” unfolds well past midnight on a Saturday, as the acerbic academics have returned home from a mixer. Martha has invited over for cocktails the newest member of the college faculty, the strapping, 28-year-old biology professor Nick (Madison Dirks), with his wife Honey (Carrie Coon). Martial one-upsmanship ensues under the fast-paced direction of Pam MacKinnon (“Clybourne Park”), as facts, plus a bit of liquor, become ammunition in a variety of games, among them “Get the Guests,” “Hump the Hostess” and the climactic “Bringing Up Baby.”
Hard to fathom, but this production marks Letts’ Broadway debut as an actor, though he was pelted with accolades as author of “August: Osage County.” The too-big blue cardigan he wears throughout “Woolf” conceals a ferocious power over his wife he’s reluctant to use unless pushed too far, and he will be. Letts vacillates between controlled manipulation and unrestrained fury at his wife’s antics, but (at least?) he’s always attentive, and you clearly have the sense he understands Martha better than she knows herself.
Morton shreds any previous sense you might have had of Martha as a washed-up floozy, imbuing the character with a texture and sensitivity that is lovely, and at times frightening to behold, particularly as she turns Nick into her willing puppet. Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins deftly manages the challenge of clothing these contemporary actors working from a half-century-old text, particularly in the way she allows Morton’s sexuality to flourish.
As the young couple invited over by their codependent elders, Dirks and Coon prove they are not on hand simply as punching bags, in particular Coon, who as petite, drunken Honey, brings a presence to the character that feels contemporary and assertive: less doormat, more team player.
For all the alcohol and venom, George makes his final stand because he loves Martha and realizes, at this late stage of the game, it’s time to evolve. In lesser hands, his actions during the last third of “Woolf” might seem malicious, but with Letts they feel more like acts of generosity and compassion. This isn’t checkmate; it’s a draw. A lot of work goes into creating a strong marriage. You could argue George and Martha have such a union. Letts and Morton most certainly do.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., through Feb. 24, 2013 Tickets, $67-$132, at the box office or through Telecharge.com. Call 212-239-6200.