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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — Theatre Exile at Plays & Players

images (7)The answer to Edward Albee’s facilely provocative question is: Anyone who isn’t tops at the game being played.

At its finest, Albee’s marvelous journey down a realistic rabbit hole, made entertaining by drink-fueled wit, interesting with its microscopic look at gossip and hierarchy in a small college town, and bitterly piercing by its forays into truth, fiction, privacy and the candor and thoroughness with which each is explored, is every bit the party to which Albee’s experienced players George and Martha invite the uninitiated Nick and Honey.

Happy it is to say that Joe Canuso’s production of “Who’s Afraid of Virgnia Woolf?” for Philadelphia’s Theatre Exile is Albee at his finest. With surgical precision, Catharine Slusar and Pearce Bunting take you for the ride of your theatrical life, never missing the chance to sharpen a barb, land an injuring salvo, escalate stakes, claim moral victory, or conspire in delicious advantage to overwhelm their unwitting guests, and each other, in a fierce contest to see who can insult or embarrass whom under the table. What else is there to do to alleviate boredom, self-loathing, and general loathing is a stodgy, routine university town, especially after musical beds has been played out?

Jake Blouch, in his second consecutive groundbreakingly magnificent performance — The previous one was a comic turn in Act II’s “Unnecessary Farce.” — is smart, urbane, educated, and competitiveness enough as Nick to keep pace, verbal punch for verbal punch, with the taunting George and helps to make Canuso’s “Virginia Woolf” even more taut and stunning than the opening Slusar and Bunting’s opening “Walpurgisnacht” scene promise it will be. Emilie Krause’s Honey is the picture of a young person out of her depth but trying gamely, if unpreparedly, to hold her own, or at least make some points in conversation, as a fledgling minnow in a nest of particularly motivated, highly skilled, voracious barracudas. Krause’s Honey, schnockered on brandy, doesn’t quite realize propriety never existed long enough in George and Martha’s abode to be thrown out of a closed, shaded window, and tries to be ladylike and sociable until knocked into reality by a truth she didn’t want told coming to full and predatory light, truth being the equivalent of fresh trailing blood to George and Martha.

Canuso and cast excel at keeping things lively,and natural, until parlays, first between George and Martha, spreading next to the younger couple, intensify to the point of being shocking, perhaps self-consciously shocking, as they elevate into being unbearable in a way that fascinates you and compels you to witness the harrowing decimation with a combination of revulsion and glee. Slusar, Bunting, Blouch, and Krause are as up for any acting challenge as George, Martha, and Nick are ready for any assault or chink in an adversary’s armor on which they can seize. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is rife with symbolism and social commentary that Canuso uses and makes clear, but above all and most admirably, the Exile production is a grand, fulfilling entertainment that thrills, delights, and amuses for every second of its three-hour running time. Slusar, Bunting, Blouch, and Krause amaze with their ability to hold you and make you wonder at their characters’ behavior at the same time you’re marveling at their realism and naturalness. Out of the 100 or so productions that have opened in Philadelphia this calendar year, or even this theater season, Canuso’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is, so far, the best, surpassing even Blanka Zizka’s expansive yet intimate staging of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” for that accolade.

Intimacy is one of the keys to the power of Canuso’s production. In the tiny Plays&Players theater, you feel like silent guests at George and Martha’s venom fest. You can have the furthest seat from the stage, and Slusar’s large, loud Martha will invade your personal space. While Bunting’s George can make your jaw drop with his insights and droller, yet more poisonous, remarks, it’s Martha, a bit in her cups and taking advantage of having company, who triggers the skein of skirmishes by her unveiled comments about George’s potency and lack of ambition. Though laughing and seeming affably jocular, Martha lands the first blows, Slusar being blousily pleased with herself and entertained by her gibes while Bunting’s George accepts her abuse benignly, yet with a twinkle in his eye of his angled head and a wry smirk that says, “I’m taking this for now, but you’re going to get it, and when you do, ouch, baby, ouch, ouch!” Blouch, meanwhile, is a curious auditor, half amused, half dismayed, totally wondering if he has stepped in one of those situations in which one spouse takes advantage of a third party’s presence to lodge complaints and broach subjects he or she avoids or ignores when the couple is alone. Of course, one gets the impression Slusar’s Martha would be relentless on any and all occasions, but it’s possible she and George barely speak when they are caught home together with no one to hear their gripes, with no one to “entertain.”

I keep mentioning realism and naturalness. That’s because they’re the elements Canuso’s production feeds on and which makes it so great. While “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” can be played for bombast or shock value, or even as a fantasy of a 2 a.m. after-party nightcap spiraling out of control, Canuso’s cast endow their characters with ineluctable human traits, sensitivities, talents, and foibles. You always feels as if you’re the witness to a verbal massacre conducted by two masterful generals who are palpable, accessible, and so concretely present, it’s their flesh-and-blood mass that arrests and enthralls you. These are not outsized characters exaggerated for stage effect. These are genuine people who summon all of their well-stocked arsenal to attack and defend, one with gusto, the other with guile, one with bayonet thrusting, the other with a psychological weapons on slow release to cause more pointed, painful havoc. This is how George and Martha live, perhaps why they live. Nick and Honey can only watch, in horror or observational interest, until Nick, a sportsman in his own right and in possession of an intellect that allows him to impose some forceful licks, enters the fray as a tentative, relative amateur but with an eye towards the jugular and a taste for wounding, and wounding deep.

Honey is always the bystander who cannot quite wrestle with the champs, but Krause makes her just as authentic as Honey acts conventionally, makes sincere but lame defenses that George, Martha, or even Nick, can overcome with one tongue tied behind their backs, but who conveys the reactions, in sickness and in health, the everyday, decently comported, unexposed person would have to such intentionally vicious verbal violence. Honey tries to retain her best party manners in a way Krause makes deliciously absurd in its authenticity, When even Honey’s dam must burst, and she tries to hurl abuse of her own, she is unequal to the task of holding back Martha or George or seriously shaming Nick. But Krause is simultaneously comic and pathetic, so she entertains while eliciting some pity. Not empathy. Not sympathy. Pity.

Which is a great deal more than George, Martha, or Nick earn. They may engender respect for their gamesmanship. They may garner fleeting moments of concern, possibly even mild sympathy, but no one among that trio, not even Nick, is a victim, and we relish seeing fur pulled and flying as Albee’s story evolves from inebriated taunts, more embarrassing to the taunter than to the taunted, to all-out emotional war destined to weed out all but the most-steeled and calloused fittest.

For all its intensity, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is not a cavalcade of bitchiness and scarring retorts. Albee subtitles it “Fun and Games with George and Martha,” and he laces his play with his acid, urbane, patrician wit that make its first scenes and several later passages archly funny, especially in Canuso’s produciton. Slusar’s Martha enters George’s and her home laughing repeatedly, mostly because someone sang “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the tune of “The Three Little Pigs’s” “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” at a party thrown by her father, the president of a small New England liberal arts college, to welcome new faculty. Nick, from the biology department (although Martha always says he’s from the math department), among them.

Slusar’s infectious laughter runs the gamut from a full, unrestrained belly laugh to a breathlessly punctuating bray that says she, if no one else, appreciates her latest joke on bon mot, usually at George’s or some absent faculty member’s expense. The chuckling bray is heard several times in the Exile production.

Slusar’s Martha is in a merry mood that contrasts which Bunting’s dry indifference as George. Perhaps because she knows, ad George doesn’t, that company is coming, and a game is afoot. When we meet them, George and Martha can share a moment of mutual fun and even conspire to offer a volley of jokes that are not directed at anyone and that both can enjoy. Albee establishes early that George and Martha each have ready, facile, literate wits and can brighten any room with their repartee. It’s when their barbs have a purpose that one must beware.

NealBoxTo Canuso, Slusar, and Bunting’s credit an mood of simultaneous intensity and humor is created from “lights up.” Already drunk, but not addled or stumbling — Drinks are mother’s milk to Albee characters and cannot touch George or Martha for bottles and bottles. — they seem to be having a decent after-party time in their dowdy ’50s-style living room with mismatched sofa, chairs, tables, and stereo, none of it pretty or attractive although redeemed by numerous scattered built-in bookcases, most of which seem to be filled the green-and-cream bound volumes of The World Book encyclopedia circa 1960.

Martha is fulsome. She is festive, loud, chatty, and chattering as she recalls her favorite moments from Daddy’s party and lets it drop casually that a young couple Daddy asked Martha to look after socially, is stopping by for one last middle-of-the-night drink.

George groans at the news. He is not as talkative as Martha. Yet. He just stands there, drinking one of two whiskeys, while Martha natters on, and he observes her, that sparking, waiting-to-pounce glint in Bunting’s catlike eye beaming with intent, perhaps intent to kill..

Slusar is entertaining. Even when Martha’s being abusive to George, the audience laughs with her and revels in her robust spirit and the indefatigable zest with which she amuses herself, dance records taking humor’s place when Martha momentarily exhausts her verbal resources..

Though George would rather go to sleep, his curiosity as much as his impulses as a host/bartender persuade him to stay on hand and abet Martha in entertaining the neophytes.

Martha and George have been married for several years. It has not been a happy marriage, but each has ameliorated his or her lot, and the union persists intact. They have an intellectual as well as a social relationship. Each gets the other’s references, no matter how arcane, and each can enjoy a good riposte or witticism.

The couple also has games they play, Beyond the obvious bout of one-upmanship that runs as a leitmotif through their marriage, they have fantasies. Martha doesn’t quite dress up as a saucy French maid and lure George to conjugal ecstasy, but she does team with him to create fictions that each, in his or her authorial way, add to as time passes. Expanding or editing these fantasies involve rules George and Martha have agreed upon and which they alone know.

The fictions and fantasies and safer and more peaceful than the truth. They entertain. They soothe.  They fill voids and relieve emptiness. They offer an outlet for narrative creativity, for artistry in crafting a life that is fuller than teaching history, being the wife of a professor and daughter to the dean, and whiling away nights reading, arguing, and fighting crushingly discernable boredom.

Martha and George are a couple by habit, and their partnering rituals include making up stories and building on them as if they were real.

Nick and Honey, it turns out, are also a couple by habit. Although 20 years younger than George and Martha, they are childhood friends who became high school sweethearts and were promised to each other in their teens, almost as if they lived in an age when marriages were arranged, and troths were committed at birth.

While Nick and Honey have a capacity to be friends with each other, Nick has outgrown Honey as his wife. He is ambitious. He eagerly accepts Martha’s 2 a.m. invitation for drinks at their dump because he sees courting, or at least indulging, the university president’s daughter, as a good career move.

Neither he nor Honey is quite ready for George and Martha’s baiting style of badinage. Each grins wanly at they see George and Martha make sport of each other, Martha going for the vulnerable, George being more subtle and building up for a potent “gaslighting” that will work on Martha’s mind and strike her to the quick. George isn’t as possible to hurt, although he knows when he’s being disparaged and notes when revenge will be most penetrating and morally lethal.

Nick is content to take in all of the cynical sourness. Even if George and Martha are appalling, he will have a great story to tell friends in the Midwest when he encounters them. George and Martha are, on a literal level, amusing, and Slusar and Bunting make their sparring hilarious with their alternating blatancy and coolness, Then a line is crossed. Honey is criticized. George knows another of Martha’s games, “Seduce the Pretty Male Guest,” which leads inevitably to what George jokingly but bitingly calls “Hump the Hostess.” He informs Nick, more for his preparation that out of disdain or warning, he is the chosen contestant for these games. He more gravely shows signs of jealousy at Nick’s ambition, virility, and sangfroid, and goes on the attack sensing the areas where Nick is most vulnerable.

Revealed confidences from Nick to George, and from Martha to Honey, set up the major conflagration that turns the party from a series of smart, smarting assaults to an ego-strewn battlefield that leaves no one unscathed and brooks no prisoner. One of the beauties of Canuso’s production is this sad sequence is as realistic as earlier, more jovial passages, and leaves you a drained and awestruck as Albee’s characters, only is more satisfying, more admiring way.

The genius of Canuso’s staging, and his cast’s performances, individually at as an ensemble, is everything looks as if it’s roiling sequentially on the surface while Canuso and company have been simmering their effects and using all the ammunition Albee gives them in realizing this remarkably edgy and entertaining production.

All that is inherent in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” emerges on the Exile stage, but you have the impression all you’re seeing a stormy, emotional night unfold. It isn’t so much that anyone acts with subtlety. Slusar’s in particular is an all-out bravura performance. It goes back to that naturalness. Canuso and company are sly enough to ply their theatrical tricks without you seeing the seams. Slusar, Bunting, Blouch, and Krause are so real, and all in Albee’s play moves so logically and inexorably to its conclusion, you accept all and watch in complete absorption and acceptance. You don’t see a mere shoutfest unfold. You see life as one couple lives it. You see the eroding caused by a provincial college town that has an almost feudal hierarchy. You see the contempt familiarity breeds, whether it’s from 20 years of marriage or 20 years of acquaintance that ends in ill-considered wedlock.

Intellect stays in the classroom at this school. The home is not an ivy-covered sanctuary. It’s a den for vipers than descends into the dump Martha calls her domicile in imitation of Bette Davis in a 1949 movie, “Beyond the Forest.”

Albee makes use of a lot of idea and symbols as he plots “Virginia Woolf.” George and Martha are self-consciously named for the father and mother of our country. The university town is called New Carthage and shares the name of a city the Romans destroyed after its general, Hannibal, had the temerity to be a threat to the Roman emperors. It bodes doom and destruction for its denizens. Virginia Woolf lived and was successful and respected in a literary world that never slaked her depression. She died a suicide. Bunting takes great advantage of Albee facetiously calling his  most benign character Honey. When he intones it, simply to address his guest by name, Bunting’s George sound as if he’s being familiar and flirtatious. His pronunciation drips the contempt George honestly feels and extends the game to Honey’s court, one from which the serve will not be returned. It won’t even be noticed.

Albee and Harold Pinter are the great games players of their generation. Games always figure in some way in Albee’s texts. In “Virginia Woolf,” the games are advanced but private. It is their revelation that exponentially escalates George’s tactically nuanced siege on Martha and makes Canuso’s production and Albee’s play so thrillingly devastating.

As I’ve mentioned, it is Canuso’s use of Albee’s elements without emphasizing any of them but letting them work within a natural, ongoing, believable, well-paced, and well-measured framework that makes his production for Exile so brilliant and so delectable.

Artists are at work on the Plays&Players stage. Catharine Slusar is remarkable in the feline way she attacks at Martha. She is half sophisticate, half slattern, totally confident in the ability to joke or slash, totally free to say or express whatever she pleases, and totally tasteless in her choice of furniture and in her lack of self-censorship. Slusar always maintains Martha’s spunk even as you see her worn down and reeling from some of the skirmishes she endures. Once she gets some claws into Nick and gleans some confidences from Honey, she can include them in her every-man-for-himself brand of parrying.

Slusar’s laughter is infectious. She is adept at making you laugh at Martha while the character would assume you’re laughing with her. Slusar’s performance is all-encompassing and is one more hallmark in a distinguished career. Her Martha shows she can handle characters of size and scope and give them their full due while being entertaining and heartbreaking in turns.

Pearce Bunting is a master of control and manipulation as George. “Virginia Woolf” is a game, and he is its moderator and ringmaster. George may have bricks thrown at his head and have to retreat for bandaging and other repairs, but he is the fox, and Bunting shows him always on a vulpine watch ready to strike, testing that breech in one’s defenses, finding that sore point and making one wish salt was the worst that was rubbed into it.

Bunting opens the production feeling a little weary, a tad partied out from the “do” at Martha’s father’s house. He will definitely have a whiskey or two, but he is not up for company. Nor does he particularly want to field Martha’s gibes about how he’s done nothing to take advantage of being the president’s son-in-law or rising in academic ranks. George is happy with New Carthage as a sinecure, his salary and Martha’s money being enough to suit him.

He looks like a man who lets Martha’s hardballs roll right off his armadillo skin. But look at Bunting’s eyes. Observe his posture. This is not a fox. That would be much too tame. This is a powerful giant, a polar bear or shark taking in all it must and then defending itself in a way that will make one sorry he or she came across or, worse, disturbed this lurking, hulking beast.

Bunting is subtle. He is disarming. Of course, Martha knows his talent for scathing, but her game is to invite his enmity. She wants to play and, as long as she stays within some bounds, she’s survive while getting her denigration off her chest.

Bunting’s George can wait to strike. He is not beyond planning, of staging a charade to hide his coup de guerre and take the day. Bunting’s George doesn’t have to be afraid of Virginia Woolf because he is impregnable. Whether dallying with Nick’s self-esteem or showing Martha who is boss, Bunting’s George can endure anything because he has the assurance to know he is the best at his skill. He may not rise up the academic chairs. He may remain a professor instead of a vice president, but when and where it counts to George, he will be victorious and reign supreme.

Children, and the begetting of them, is a major throughline of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It’s the pretext upon which the ultimate and most destructive games are played. Bunting, Slusar, Blouch, and Krause are all keen in the sequences involving children. Watch them all as they realize the stakes, or not as in Honey’s case, and play their hands.

Jake Blouch has had a remarkable 2015. He was such a riot as the bag-pipe playing Scottish assassin in “Unnecessary Farce,” he opened your eyes to how deftly and subtly he could play comedy. In “Virginia Woolf,” his usual dark auburn locks shorn to a 60s businessman’s cut and his facial hair gone, Blouch is the personification of Joe College, Except in this case Nick is a wunderkind who has his Ph.D. and a secure tenure track faculty appointment at age 28.

Nothing is callow or boyish about Blouch’s Nick. He looks young and youthful but has the carriage and poise of a man of experience. There’s swagger in his step and a genuine honesty in his eye. He may be starting his career, but he’s nobody’s fool, and while he may seem conventional and one of a dozen of his type, Blouch’s Nick conveys impressive self-possession that will translate to presence of mind when he spars with George.

Nick’s maturity and unwillingness to be sucked into George’s game is a key to Blouch’s performance. You would bank on him to withstand the worst George and can dish out and brush off any battle debris in the morning. More than the aware Martha, the discovering Nick is George’s toughest adversary because he can meet him on his terms, do a little damage, and walk away to go about his business as if nothing has happened.

Blouch’s solidity and strength are amazing. He makes “Virginia Woolf” more of a three-hander rather than being a war between George and Martha that features some younger characters as collateral damage.

Blouch’s Nick is an able player of the game, and his scenes with Bunting’s George never make you miss Slusar’s Martha and her comic relief.

Emilie Krause’s Honey never quite catches on to all that is happening around her, but she gleans when Honey is being ridiculed and is appropriately distraught when Honey’s two biggest shames are exposed. Krause is so unaware of everything transpiring around her, she enhances Holly’s reality.

Interestingly, though Honey may be the most lastingly affected of the partygoers, she does not elicit any special sympathy. Krause is so genuinely, you look at Honey as an underling, an amateur who barely matters even as she’s played so splendidly in your presence.

Meghan Jones’s set is appropriately dull and dumpy. The bar area seems to be the hub of activity and the one part of the set that looks bright and dusted. It is telling that George’s reading chair, in a stage left nook bordered by bookcases, looks away from other seating area and exists as a sign he usually ignores Martha or shrugs her off.

Katherine Fritz’s costume design is wittiest when Martha goes off in her party dress and comes back in something more comfortable, a sexier party dress, black, seductive, and used by Slusar to lure Nick. It was telling that Blouch’s Nick never removes or even lowers his tie. He barely takes off his jacket. Everyone looks his or her part in terms of wardrobe.

Alice Yorke comes through with some interesting props. A cleaver is particularly amusing. Thom Weaver’s lighting lets you chart time at 2 a.m. wends it way to dawn, as you see the changes in light through windows adjacent to George and Martha’s particularly ugly front door. Mark Valenzuela’s sound design makes you think of the 60s when “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is set.

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” runs through Sunday, May 17, under the auspices of Theatre Exile, at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 pm. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or by visiting www.theatreexile.org.

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