At the Denver Center, a devastating production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

In the 60 years since the debut of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s pressure-cooker, darkly comedic drama about lies and marriage, we’ve heard many a commentary about how the world has coarsened. But even compared to our own era’s nastiness, the characters in this play stand out as brutish combatants in a sick game only they know the rules to.

Or do they?

As the first production in the newly refurbished Singleton Theatre (formerly the Ricketson), the Denver Center Theatre Company take on this American stalwart is topnotch. New York-based director Margot Bordelon puts a fair amount of emphasis on the humorous side of what’s an otherwise deeply disturbing play on many levels.

At the heart of the bad behavior are George and Martha, a long-married couple at a small New England college where he’s a history teacher and she’s an idle drunk who happens to be the daughter of the school’s president. Albee wastes no time establishing the toxicity of their relationship: within minutes of their coming home from a party they’re flinging noxious barbs at one another as if they’re in a fight. But it’s just business as usual for this duo.

Veteran DCPA scenic designer Lisa M. Orzolek brings us into George and Martha’s book-lined living room with a set that’s turned 45 degrees from the proscenium. This triangular configuration has the effect of drawing the audience even closer to the action, which in turn cranks up the uncomfortable factor even further as the night deteriorates. Orzolek’s set tells us a lot about the owners of the home even before we meet them — from the booze cart and writing desk to the copy of Scientific American on the cocktail table to the full ashtrays and overall messy condition of the room.

These are messy lives, and Bordelon hit the casting jackpot with Jon Hudson Odom and Kelly McAndrew as George and Martha. Odom masterfully splits the difference between George’s biting sarcasm and his patience and apparent affection for Martha. Shuffling about in his cardigan trying to keep up with her non-stop requests for another drink (gin on the rocks), Odom delivers George’s lines with deadly precision, a soft-voiced asshole who knows just where to slip the knife.

Martha is the boozy, brassy blonde whose cuts are coarser but no less deadly. McAndrew nails the nasty while gradually revealing the cracks in her own sarcastic armor. Sure, it’s there in the script, but in the closer confines of the Singleton, we can see it on her face even before they’re spoken. The two of them together, it’s like watching fighting fish in a bowl wanting to kill each other at the same time they know they’ve still got to live with one another.

Jon Hudson Odom as George | Photo: Adams VisCom

The catalyst

And so they would remain, circling and sparring with one another amidst the backdrop of their own big lie, to eternity. But following them home after the party are two newbies to campus invited by Martha at the strong suggestion of her father. No matter that it’s already after 2 a.m.; Honey and Nick stumble across the threshold wholly unaware of what they’re getting into.

Young, good-looking and not quite sure why they’re there, the two are instantly treated to what passes for hospitality in George and Martha’s home: an exhibition by a couple of battle axes who A) don’t pull their punches for company and B) have no problem directing the sarcasm stream at their guests.

George immediately dislikes the tall, handsome Nick — a fresh-faced doofus in his view who’s sticking his head in the academic meat grinder with no idea what he’s in for. As an embittered associate professor and failed novelist under the thumb of his father-in-law, George seems hell bent on showing Nick how things really are as soon as possible.

Paul David Story starts out playing Nick as an amiable lunkhead, but he quickly follows George and Martha down the sewer as he and Honey ultimately divulge their own secrets, hangups and marital discord. It’s a strong performance as the character who perhaps has the furthest to fall — George and Martha already there and Honey mostly too drunk to know what’s happening.

As Honey, Isabelle De Souza Moore does an admirable job playing drunk without going too far. Later, when the truth hammers are coming down, she sobers up enough to be as pissed at Nick as George and Martha are at one another when heretofore unshared revelations come to light.

Things get weird between Nick and Martha as George and Honey look on. | Photo: Adams VisCom

Big night

Watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is exhausting — and not because it’s three acts spanning three hours. It’s how Albee designed it: a deliberately impossible situation from which escape isn’t possible. (Even when Nick and Honey finally slump out the door as dawn breaks, there’s no doubt their lives are changed forever.)

One of my favorite scenes from filmdom is at the end of Big Night, where a horrific evening culminates in the two brothers calmly making breakfast for one another. I was reminded of that here, where a similarly long and awful night ends with a placid scene where we understand that no amount of vitriol is going to separate these two characters.

While many of us may not have the types of closet skeletons this foursome work through during the course of the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? says a lot about reality and how resistant we can be to it. Albee may not have guessed that, 60 years on, Americans would be at one another’s throats over a massive but easily dispelled lie, but he certainly knew of our capacity for such psychoses.

This isn’t an easy play to watch, and it’s certainly not for everyone (my wife would’ve hated it; my 20-year-old son loved it). What’s intriguing about it is the degree to which humans get wrapped around their own bullshit, then spread it to others. Despite its length, Albee’s play doesn’t feel long because it’s a mystery of sorts — a peeling back of all these layers that has the audience wondering how in hell this thing will resolve.

If you’re ever wanting to see one of these “big plays you’ve been hearing about for years” but haven’t actually seen, this is a great time to do it. This DCTC production is excellent, and although the cast is comprised of out-of-towners, it’s a powerful foursome that really delivers.