It all begins with a guessing game and ends with the game board being tossed in the air, the pieces flying in all directions. In between lies one of the great American plays, Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a work that is as funny as it is coruscating.
This incisive production at the Beck Center, directed with perfect pitch by Donald Carrier, is a three-hour and two-intermission slide down the razor blade of life, to borrow Tom Lehrer's indelible phrase. Albee is certainly not the first writer to imagine our hapless little lives as some form of game playing wherein the results are both tragic and irrelevant. Tragic, because real emotions and feelings are at stake; and irrelevant, because when the sun rises, a new game starts as the same players, or different ones, spin the dial. And on it goes.
This particular game begins when middle-aged George and Martha drunkenly wobble through the front door of their not-so-tidy house on the campus of a New England college. As played by the estimable Derdriu Ring, Martha enters her own home like she's stumbled into an enemy's machine gun nest. And indeed she has. This is the place where she and her husband play out their ritual debarking of each other, trying to silence the other by dint of clever wordplay, caustic insults and feigned indifference.
They each come equipped with fearsome arsenals. George is a long-term associate professor of history, and he's as quick with a barbed quip as he is pouring cocktails. In the role of George, Michael Mauldin is a tower of paunchy, bourbon-soaked strength: You can attack him all you want, but he just keeps bouncing back like a round-bottomed punching bag.
Martha despises her husband for being a failure in academia, never having risen to chair his department. This is particularly tormenting for her since her father is president of the college. And since they have just returned from a booze-soaked faculty party where she no doubt felt immersed in George's terminal career failures, she is ripe for battle.
Of course, neither will win this game because the two combatants are as well matched as Godzilla versus King Kong, each being privy to a secret that they share and use against each other. So they need another target on which to sharpen their claws. And in step Nick and Honey, a young couple they met for the first time at the party. Stud-muffin Nick is a prof in the biology department while Honey is, as her name suggests, both sweet and sticky. Fueled by a continual flow of alcohol, this foursome plays out games of social interaction that are both named (Hump the Hostess, Get the Guests) and unnamed.
But what is most remarkable is how Beck's chamber quartet of actors plies the strings of Albee's script with such surpassing skill. Placed on Aaron Benson's marvelous, softly saggy set, the players often achieve a kind of symphonic richness with the words, lightly tripping through arpeggios of angst, then entering surprising silences that throb with anger and hurt.
Daniel Telford navigates the challenging role of Nick with deft assurance, as he morphs from polite guest to a raging animal confined by circumstances in the superficially civilized trap created by George and Martha. Just as good is Becca Ciamacco as Honey, prim and proper one moment and whirling through inebriated dances the next. Neither character really understands what's going on this hell house until Act 3, when the secret is revealed and the dimensions of the game-playing are laid out in stark relief.
As important as the young couple is to the dynamic of this play, it's all about the two heavyweights, George and Martha. And in this production, those roles could not be handled better. While Ring doesn't have the physical heft of Elizabeth Taylor, who played Martha in the renowned film version, she more than makes up for it with wiry aggression and an indomitable focus on one-upmanship. When she curls herself into a chair or extends her arm with glass in hand for another refill, there is a specific edge to every movement and gesture.
And Mauldin makes George more than the pathetic kick-me loser that he can easily become in a less intelligently crafted staging. This George derives strength from every psychic cut, drawing sustenance from the elixir of disgust spewing from his wife. He also nails the dark laugh lines that enable the audience to maintain their watchful vigil through this marital carnage.
For the second year in a row, Beck's small studio theater is playing host to one of the region's finest shows. Last year, it was Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot that garnered well-deserved standing ovations. And now it is Virginia Woolf.
The only way to understand the excellence is to live through the entirety of this hilarious, tortured play — right up to the moment when George and Martha sit side-by-side on the coffee table at the end, looking into the void of their lives.