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Love is a Battlefield

by Jules Becker
Thursday Jan 19, 2017

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through February 12. 617-585-5678 or lyricstage.com

If Pat Benatar sang of love as a battlefield, the late great Edward Albee turned marriage into a full-scale battle royal in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" A verbal and emotional slugfest played out in three acts between warring husband and wife George and Martha, Albee's 1962 masterwork is a theatrical face-off of the highest order. Thanks to the inspired coaching of director Scott Edmiston and a hard-hitting cast, the latest Hub revival by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston has the knockout impact of a heavy weight champion.

No punches are pulled in this disturbing but always fascinating one-night war of words. Albee buffs know that the very different combatants in question are seemingly subdued associate professor of history George and his outspoken wife Martha, the daughter of the university's president. Their very lived-in on campus house -kudos to Janie E. Howland for a well-detailed set that fully lives up to Martha's allusion to the famous Bette Davis line "What a dump!"- becomes the over-sized ring for the couple's blistering "Fun and Games" (Albee's title for the first act). In the play's back story, George and Martha have invited over biology department newcomer Nick and his unassuming wife Honey whom they met at the president's faculty party.

Initially the ''bucolic Midwest couple" serve not only as drinking acquaintances but also spectators to George and Martha's traded insults and putdowns. George speaks of Martha braying, while she calls him names like "Swampie" and "Paunchie." Soon George takes on 28 year old Nick (who earned a master's degree at the young age of 19) - seeing his field and gene experimentation as a precursor to cloning and a threat to humanity. He also suggests that the ambitious biology teacher may be planning to "plow a few pertinent wives" of faculty members. For her part, Honey comes across as a highly sympathetic wife herself, one given to frequent throwing up and unduly trusting. Eventually Nick declares his readiness to counter George's insinuations and volleys back with quips and cracks of his own (with Albee later inserting an actual tennis metaphor in the play-namely "mixed doubles").

The edgy charades-'Humiliate the Host' and 'Hump the Hostess' among them-and the war of words between Martha and George throughout demonstrate how consummate a wordsmith Albee was. Martha sees George as "a devil with language," and so it was with Albee. Undaunted Albee used candid dialogue to cut to the core of George and Martha's fears about their future and the disturbing reality of their unfulfilled lives with the skill of a surgeon. Their verbal battles become exuberant if brief escapes into illusion. While the truths that emerge from behind the illusion are often brutal in their clarity, George and Martha do find comfort in being together at the break of dawn. Both the nightlong bout and the contrasting closing solace are never less than visceral as theater.

Director Edmiston captures the volatile interaction of Albee's characters without ever losing sight of their humanity and the often dark humor that pervades their exchanges. Paula Plum finds all of Martha's in-your-face vulgarity as well as her earth goddess vitality. There is wonderful wickedness in her flirtatiousness with Dan Whelton's Nick and arresting pathos in her expression of loneliness at the start of the third act-especially as she speaks of tears in their drinks' ice. Steven Barkhimer develops George's frustration and indignation so well that his moments of uncontrolled rage with Martha and with Nick become emotional thunderclaps. His narrative about a troubled young man ordering 'bourgon' instead of bourbon has the right brief suggestion of being too close to home. The hosts' painful third act game about a fictional son has great poignancy. Capturing the major and minor chords in Albee's sublimely rhythmic dialogue, Barkhimer and Plum prove as compelling for this critic as Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst were in a powerful 1976 revival.

Whelton and Erica Spyres have good chemistry as Nick and Honey Whelton catches Nick's bravado early on in his stance as well as his speeches. He makes the most of Nick's later subdued moments with Martha. Spyres smartly keeps Honey likeable and never sappy. She hops amusingly bunny-like in the late going.

Speaking bluntly of George and Martha at one point , Nick observes ,"You too don't miss. The same is true of Albee's haunting gem and Lyric Stage Company's intrepidly fresh revival of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

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