The first act of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is called “Fun And Games,” but beware.  These are not your usual party games, as audiences can once again discover in Hermosa Beach Playhouse’s absolutely sensational revival of the 1962 Broadway classic.  Under Stephanie A. Coltrin’s expert direction, and featuring bravura lead performances by Matthew Brenher as George and Suzanne Dean as Martha, this is a production that more than holds its own against the Bill Irwin/Kathleen Turner Broadway revival which played the Ahmanson a few years back, or last season’s Ovation-nominated staging at the Rubicon.

In addition, for those mourning the departure of Tracy Letts’ epic August Osage County from the Ahmanson, Virginia Woolf’s return should be welcome news indeed (though haste is of the essence with the Hermosa Beach Playhouse production scheduled to close on Sunday.)  Like Letts’ Tony-winner, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf gives theatergoers full bang for their bucks.  It is three engrossing acts, three-plus enthralling hours of dark comedy, gripping drama, and family secrets galore, albeit on a smaller scale.

“Fun And Games” doesn’t begin to describe the all-night “afterparty” hosted by college prof George and wife Martha for recent faculty addition Nick and his “mousey” wife Honey. A great deal of liquor is imbibed, a great deal indeed, enough to loosen tongues just dying to goad, insult, dig, and reveal secrets best left unspoken. Martha taunts George for being a “great big fat flop,” for being “in the History Department … as opposed to being the History Department,” something which is all the more disappointing as Martha’s father is the college President. Later, she refuses to be silenced about George’s unpublished novel, the story of “a naughty boychild … who killed his mother and his father dead” (which may or may not be George’s own story), causing husband to grab wife by the throat and nearly strangle her. The final, most destructive game is “Bringing Up Baby,” but to say more would be to reveal too much information to anyone seeing Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf for the first time.

George and Martha’s games are reserved not just for themselves but for their two guests as well.  Nick and Honey get their fair share of their hosts’ cruelty, the visitors’ level of intoxication soon matching George and Martha’s. There’s Nick’s revelation of the supposed pregnancy which led to their precipitous marriage and later turned out to be one of the “hysterical” variety, a fact he later humiliates his wife with in front of their hosts.  Martha has her own game in mind for Nick, one involving the seduction of this studly young faculty newbie, smack dab in her husband’s face.

Not just anyone can get the rights to stage Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, so the simple fact that Hermosa Beach Playhouse was granted them by the 81-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright himself augers well for the production.  As anyone who’s caught their recent Sylvia, Blithe Spirit, or Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean knows, the Playhouse is easily the finest non-Equity theater in the L.A. area, their productions standing up quite nicely our most esteemed Equity houses. Coltrin directed all three above-mentioned productions, as well as the multiple Ovation-winning Miss Saigon, and with Virginia Woolf her all-time favorite play, this is a director who knows the material and knows how to bring out the best in it. Add to that South Bay Cities’ finest actress (Dean) and Brenher, her superb costar in Little Fish’s recent Betrayal, and you have can’t-miss, must-see theater.

Dean is a Southland treasure, and one anyone in search of acting brilliance would do well to discover. Her Martha is as different from Kathleen Turner’s bulldozer as night is to day, but equally award-worthy, a petite time bomb of a Martha, a cat with claws, a cobra with fangs, dynamic and darned sexy to boot.  There are so many layers and colors to Dean’s performance that a giant-sized box of Crayolas would be needed to sketch them all. Her Martha is tantalizing, exasperating, pathetic, admirable, and ultimately heartbreaking. If you haven’t yet discovered Suzanne Dean, now is the time to do so as she tears up the Hermosa Beach Playhouse stage.

Brenher is every bit as terrific, and an inspired choice to play George. The actor’s own British accent works quite perfectly for an East Coast history professor, and casting someone about a foot taller than Dean makes it all the more interesting the many times Martha asserts herself as the one wearing the pants in this f’ed-up family unit. Brenher has George’s world-weary look and manner down pat, and when he finally has had enough and starts giving back as good as he gets, the effect is startling and all the more powerful for being unexpected.

Coltrin’s choices for Nick and Honey are a bit risky but pay off.  Dane Biren might seem at first a tad too young and boyish to play a biology professor, but his is a Nick one can truly buy as having gotten his Masters at age 19. There’s a hint of sexual ambiguity in Biren’s performance, making his marriage to Honey and the outcome of his offstage wham-bam with Martha all the more provocative. Biren’s Nick starts off almost wimpy, but just wait till the final straw breaks his good-natured back. Exciting, revelatory work from an actor who’s been hitherto seen singing and dancing in Coltrin-directed musicals.  Meredith Rensa’s Honey is equally non-traditionally cast, the actress so pretty that Martha’s initial description of her as “a mousey little type” seems a figment of Martha’s envy or jealousy. This Honey has more the air of a cheerleader-debutante than a mouse, but why not, since no matter how Honey starts, it’s the changes wrought by her unaccustomed downing of drink after drink that makes her such an interesting character. Rensa’s touching depiction of a young woman trapped at the cocktail party from hell is a memorable one indeed.

Set designer Christopher Beyries has created just the kind of wood-paneled, book-filled, slightly run-down New England professor’s residence that George and Martha might have lived in for far too many years, and Ric Zimmerman has designed effective late night lighting for it. Costume designer Christa Armendariz has once again picked just the right period-looking outfits for the four characters.

The decade and a half from the end of World War II to the assassination of John F. Kennedy has been described as America’s “Golden Years.” If the pervasive repression of women, blacks, and gays during that era has since proven this to be mere wishful thinking on the part of social conservatives, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf demonstrates that even for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants there was trouble in paradise. Those in the mood for a roller-coaster ride down memory lane will find much to savor in this award-worthy revival of Albee’s chef d’oeuvre.

Hermosa Beach Playhouse, 170 Pier Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway, Hermosa Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 20, 2009
                                                                             Photos: Alysa Brennan

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