Edward Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' packs a surprising punch

This theater image released by Jeffrey Richards Associates

This theater image released by Jeffrey Richards Associates shows, from left, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks, Amy Morton and Tracy Letts in a scene from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." (Credit: Michael Brosilow)

You think you know "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" You know you've seen the play somewhere, and probably the movie. And since this latest Broadway revival has no Hollywood stars, you may not feel the urgent pull to get through another long, brutal night with George and Martha.

Well, forget all that. In fact, this is one of those forget-everything-you-know evenings, as immediate and surprising and unflinching as Edward Albee's marital stunner must have felt, in some different ways, in 1962.

From the opening moments, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's brilliantly cast and justly celebrated production, which opened Saturday on the masterwork's 50th anniversary, gives off a voltage of the new and the giddy-making confidence that comes from being in sublimely trustworthy hands.

Those opening moments are a shock, though not the way Albee's four-letter words are said to have shocked original audiences. What shakes us up is the way this Martha underplays her famous "What a dump!" as she and George tumble into their conspicuously lived-in home after a faculty party. Instead of a bellowing gorgon in a Bette Davis imitation (think Kathleen Turner's Martha in 2005), the daringly subtle and sensitive Amy Morton is instantly a person and not just the unhappy, self-dramatizing monster-daughter of the New England university president.

Amazingly, then comes this riveting George, usually first Beta to her Alpha Dog. But Tracy Letts -- whom Broadway only knows as the Pulitzer-winning playwright of "August: Osage County" -- goes against type for an astonishing, star-making portrayal of a dynamic, comfy-in-his skin George. It requires a conceptual leap to imagine him as a loser in the history department, but the leap is thrilling.

Thus, director Pam MacKinnon roils the balance, evening up the match between these long-married forces of bad nature and, in the process, allowing a naturalistic bond to toy, to and fro, with the cruel and the mythic.

This is not to suggest a toned-down Albee -- as if the master of hyper-articulate, grown-up emotional terrorism, 85, would ever permit it. This is still a harrowing odyssey of late-night evisceration, when the alluring new biology professor and his mouse of a wife stop by for a nightcap.

Madison Dirks skins layers of betrayal off the young hunk, while Carrie Coon devolves beautifully on brandy and a benumbed lack of irony. This is a visceral, devastating, deeply human night.

WHAT "Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

INFO $67-$132; 212-239-6200; virginiawoolfbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Devastating and surprising revival

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Newsday on social media

@Newsday

advertisement | advertise on newsday