Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All Albee in D.C.

A T-shirt from the Edward Albee Festival.

The only thing as good (or better) than seeing great theater in New York is seeing great theater out of town. My grandfather always said that food tastes better when you dine out, and the same is often true of theater. Perhaps that's because many regional theaters just have more actual space for their spaces — large lobbies where audiences can congregate and not feel suffocated by the hordes. Perhaps it's also the excitement of getting to see the work of actors who don't normally perform in New York.

Those two elements contributed to my enjoyment of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and At Home at the Zoo, the two plays that Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage is presenting in full productions as part of its Edward Albee Festival. The rest of the two-month-long event includes readings of all the other plays in his canon. And I love theater people with a sense of humor, so of course I had to snap up the official festival "Team Edward" T-shirt (pictured above), which riffs on the Twilight phenomenon. Someone who works for Arena Stage said that Albee loved the shirts.

As for the productions, both were subtly ferocious; I noticed I was leaning in to the characters as if I were part of their conversation. Definitely not something I expected to do during Pam Mackinnon's Virginia Woolf, because I have such vivid memories of the last Broadway revival where Kathleen Turner and company raised the roof with their high-decibel (but also effective) performances.

I'd never seen Tracy Letts act onstage before — only had the pleasure of enjoying his playwriting with shows like Bug and August: Osage County (talk about plays that raised the roof). Somehow he plays George as both milquetoast and a commanding presence. In the same vein Carrie Coon captures Honey's etherealness while also showing that she's a heck of a lot savvier than the others think. All four characters (Amy Morton played Martha and Madison Dirks as Nick) are considerably less glamorous than they were in Anthony Page's Broadway production, which makes their struggles, conceits and failures resonate that much more forcefully.

At Home at the Zoo was just as much of a treat because I didn't see it when it was presented in New York by Second Stage a few years ago as Peter and Jerry, and I'd never seen a production of The Zoo Story, which is part two of these combined one-acts. James McMenamin is quite captivating as Jerry, who seems like a relatively normal, if overly talkative, character when he first approaches Peter in the park. You can feel him fighting and losing his battle with his demons as the show reaches its climax.

The one moment that jarred me out of the play was a Stephen King reference that obviously was added well after the play's Off-Broadway premiere in 1960. Originally, Jerry asks Peter if he prefers Baudelaire (a French poet) or J.P. Marquand (a popular early 20th-century novelist). In the current production, he replaces Marquand with Stephen King. I'm guessing it's because the assumption was made that not many audience members would know who Marquand was — although I question how many of them would know the name Baudelaire. It seemed out of place because Albee's plays feel both timeless and rooted in the era in which they were written. Change just a word or two and you notice the difference.