It seemed like such an interesting idea.
Elevator Repair Service, the smart-as-a-whip downtown company behind things like Gatz, the inspired verbatim retelling of The Great Gatsby, and Arguendo, a transcript-based Supreme Court quasi-farce, was mounting a sort of response to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee’s deathless, gin-soaked unhappy-marriage classic.
“Martha must be avenged,” says Kate Scelsa, the ERS member who wrote Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf, in a program-note “conversation” with John Collins, its director and the ERS artistic director. Scelsa explains that she’s made a feminist reinterpretation of Albee’s female lead, “an incredible feminist character” who ultimately is “defeated—by the idea of motherhood.” “Yes,” Collins agrees. “She must be avenged.”
Perhaps she does. But she deserves a lot better than this.
Everything’s Fine With Virginia Woolf opened tonight at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, and despite some clever lines and purportedly the best of intentions, it’s an incoherent, amateurish, arguably homophobic slog. What’s conceived as a smart English-lit-grad-students’ lovingly revisionist take on a admired piece of art in the end is little more than an than sex-obsessed sophomoric romp through literary allusions, providing occasional entertainment but no insight.
We enter the theater to see the set onstage, a let’s-put-on-a-show low-budget living room of Modernist inspiration but no specific time. We could be in the midcentury moment of Albee’s play, but we could also be in the present time—a nice elision. (The set is by Louisa Thompson. The similar midcentury-but-modern costumes are by Kaye Voyce.)
Martha (Annie McNamara, appropriately and amusingly ferocious) and George (Vin Knight, alternating between meekness and rage) come tipsily home from a college party, Martha singing the titular ditty. They’re going to have another couple over, because they want to be the fun sort of people who keep the party going. So far, so fine: a spoofy riff on Albee’s work. Soon enough, of course the younger couple, Nick (Mike Iveson) and Honey (April Matthis), arrive. Still fine.
Scelsa’s script has fun sending up Albee, and Collins’ direction makes things even more madcap. Coats are removed, brought toward an image of a rack painted on a flat, and then dropped on the floor. Record albums are similarly dropped in the vicinity of a painted phonograph. Scelsa’s style in this section is to jokingly make explicit what Albee left implicit: “I just think if I can say the things out loud, the terrible things, that they no longer have power over me. Then I am free of them because they are no longer secret.”
But that joke quickly wears out. She invited the young couple over, and “I think there’s a chance for a swap, okay, so don’t fuck this up for me.” “You have your job because of my father and you hate it and I’ve never had a job. Because of my father. And I love it.” “Believe my father, who’s going to take your tenure away from you and give it to Will-Nick.” By this last point, Scelsa has taken to likening Nick to Will and Martha to Grace.
And that points to another oddity here: Her preferred device for critiquing Albee, in this proudly feminist reclaiming, is to critique him for being a gay man writing about women by caricaturing other gay men writing about women. There’s all that Will & Grace business, with its especially silly Harry Connick-on-a-horse sitcom romance for Grace (and its gay creators), and there extended riffs on Tennessee Williams (of whose work George is here a scholar). It’s hard to unpack the decision to wage a #metoo defense of Martha by painting George as a closet case impersonating Williams as a mincing queen in order to critique controlled and controlling Albee.
But, then, by the middle of this play little is making sense. Eventually this living-room set evaporates into a industrial purgatoryt, with George-as-Tenn, in a frock and headscarf, doing Blanche but with a microphone cord slung over his shoulder a la Judy. (Your guess is as good as mine.) That’s when a robot rolls on stage.
Better it had been an armadillo.
Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf opened at Abrons Art Center on June 12, 2018, and runs through June 30. Tickets and information: abronartscenter.org