Pouncing unexpectedly on Broadway in 1962, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee’s drama of marital disintegration and psychotic mind games is a play of people possessed – getting at the demons behind them can be another story.
Director David Grindley’s staging starts soberly. College professor George (Denis Conway) and wife Martha (Fiona Bell) get stroppy over the mention of their absent son. Albee recognises that a good fight needs an audience, and ushers in late night houseguests, George’s new colleague Nick and his wife Honey (deft Mark Huberman and Sophie Robinson).
In a deathmatch dressed up as a party game, the fast dialogue isn’t delivered lightly but thrown like knives (“You’re going to get it, baby!” “Be careful, I’ll rip you to pieces”). Bell is extraordinary as the matriarch Martha: slinking over her chair, chewing ice, crawling slowly towards implosion. Conway keeps it stealthy and smart, sneaking in comebacks with killer timing, though such restraint might hold back the production as a whole, on its descent into madness.
It’s an uneasy transition for Grindley, a surprise from the director who masterfully exposed the underworld of Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert at the Gate last year. The action circles familiar ground without escalating. Disappointingly, it refuses to deliver the kind of bloodbath indicated by the red-drenched surfaces of Jonathan Fensom’s living room set. As a result, Albee’s crossfire of psychoses and American ideals ends up feeling tame. There’s not much here to be afraid of.