ST. PETERSBURG — Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a long haul: Three acts, two intermissions, more than three hours. And a countless number of drinks. As Bette Davis put it, as Margo Channing in All About Eve, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night!''
The Davis reference is not completely gratuitous. She was Edward Albee's choice to play the leading role in his play, though she never did. Many powerful actors have played Martha, from Uta Hagen to Elizabeth Taylor to Kathleen Turner. Now Christine Decker joins the club.
Decker gives an awesome performance as the monstrous Martha, one half of the feuding couple at the battered heart of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? at American Stage, and is well-matched by Richard B. Watson who plays her husband, George. If Matthew Stephen Huffman and Betty-Jane Parks, as Nick and Honey, who endure a long day's journey into night and the next morning with George and Martha, are less compelling, this is still a first-rate production, directed by Todd Olson.
But brilliant acting aside, Albee's boozy epic from 1962 has dated badly. The sharply honed dialogue is often exhilarating and hilarious, but I was worn down by the sheer talkiness of it all at Sunday's matinee. George's language in particular becomes grating, as he expounds in a mix of hipster slang and windy philosophizing.
Then there's the central issue of the play, the "imaginary'' son of George and Martha, along with the "hysterical'' faux pregnancy of Honey that caused Nick to marry her. Albee, who was unhappily adopted, has pursued this theme throughout his career in works like The Play About the Baby. Infertility, or abortion, or homosexuality, or whatever is behind the self-loathing malaise of the academic couples in Woolf, are big deals, but attitudes have changed in the past 50 years. It's hard to imagine this psychodrama taking place today, when it's pretty common for people to choose not to have children.
Decker and Watson establish that Martha and George are fond of each other, with a spark of sexual chemistry between them, and that keeps the play clipping along through the first two acts, even as their attacks get more brutal. Decker's comic timing is masterful, and Watson pulls off the tricky feat of playing a drunk without being a total bore.
Act 3 starts promisingly, with a funny, touching soliloquy by Decker. The spell is broken when Nick comes downstairs, and Martha taunts him and every other man in her life as "a bunch of boozed-up ... impotent lunkheads.'' There is a scene that feels thrillingly improvisational after George presents his wife with a bouquet of snapdragons. But the climax, an overwrought fugue by George and Martha, seems contrived and unbelievable.
Incidentally, if you have only seen the movie, as fine as it is, you have not fully experienced Albee's play. Material was cut for the screen, some of it priceless, like Martha's witty rejoinder to a pedantic remark by George: "Abstruse! In the sense of recondite. Don't you tell me words.''
Martha opens the play by declaring her house a dump, but Scott Cooper's set looks much too neat, with only a few books and magazines scattered around the handsome leather furniture. And there's not a smoker in the bunch, which could be a first for such an alcoholic binge.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.