After another dull faculty party, George and Martha return to their comfortably ramshackle home to prepare for guests. Newspapers and books are stacked about the floor, and the coffee table is a forest of dirty glasses hiding a single half-eaten apple and George's pipe. The only tidy place in this wood-paneled sitting room is the fastidious cocktail table off to the side, complete with sparkling glasses ready to go.
Those glasses are filled again and again and again before dawn arrives. The rest of the space is much worse for the wear by that time, as are George and Martha and their guests Nick and Honey.
Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is marathon that's run as a series of sprints at St. Louis Actors' Studio. Director John Contini's pace is blistering here, with Albee's trademark thickets of dialogue run through at blinding speed, and yet each of his thorny bon mots find bloody purchase in someone's skin. The moments of calm that pool between outbursts are more tension-fraught than the fighting — the things George and Martha say as they slash at one another around mouthfuls of booze make you wonder how terrible the thoughts that go unsaid must be.
And that is the crux of Virginia Woolf, the things unsaid. George (William Roth) is a middle-aged associate professor of history at the university. Martha (Kari Ely) is the daughter of the university president, and as George notes acidly at one point, "she's her father's daughter. You might say she's his right ball." Their relationship is predicated on George's failure to advance himself to head of the department, and Martha's frequent pointing out of same. But at least tonight, all of their verbal sparring is presented as a series of party games for Nick (Michael Amoroso) and Honey (Betsy Bowman).
Ely is goddamn terrifying as Martha. A she-wolf with a drinking problem, she cackles and brays and fires insults at her husband even as she butters up Nick with praise that barely conceals her carnal interests in the young biology professor. Her knife-slit eyes peer out at George over her rapidly drained glass, but then open into a delicious full-face smile at him when he replies to her insults with something equally nasty.
Roth's George appears at first to be a crash-test dummy in glasses, a helpless target for Martha's invective who responds with a soft grin and a raised glass. As the long night grinds on, Roth opens up George to reveal a hidden spark that still flickers inside. Maybe that's what keeps that little smile constantly at the corners of his mouth. When he appears on the landing with a rifle aimed at his wife's head, that smirk blossoms into a full death's head grin — but even this is only another game.
Nick is often the target of George's gambits, and Amoroso handles the transition from butt of the joke to willing antagonist skillfully. More telling is his slowly dawning revulsion toward his wife, who never quite catches on to the nastier elements of the party through her haze of brandy. Bowman makes the most of Honey, who is drunker than the rest and frequently out of the running, keeping her naivete sweet without being cloying. But even Honey eventually spoils in George and Martha's home, turning on Nick with unbridled revulsion.
The exposure of marriage and family life as an endless struggle for space and personal identity is Albee's motif. But when dawn finally filters through the windows of George and Martha's home, we're treated to a tranquil moment of domestic understanding (bliss is out of the question). Contini frames the survivors in golden light, and they lean on one another in solidarity. Another night down with more come. And that cocktail table gleaming in the corner? It's reloaded and ready for duty.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Through March 1 at Gaslight Theater. Call 314-458-2978 or click here.