So what about Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, the new Elevator Repair Service parody at the Abrons Art Center? Everyone’s fine? Really? I’m not, and you won’t be either when you get a load of what 16-year ERS member and playwright Kate Scelsa has done with—to—the 1962 Edward Albee classic. You know, the one that was famously turned down by the timid Pulitzer muckamucks.
Were Albee alive today, he likely wouldn’t be so fine with this send-up of his play. Rightly so. On the other hand, were the playwright, who died two years ago, alive today, it’s likely the company would not have had the chutzpah to push the piece forward. What Scelsa has in mind to do with her 75-minute insult is fairly clear. While declaring in a program note that she greatly admires the work—with admirers like these, Albee doesn’t need detractors—she does quarrel with some of its elements.
Most significantly, she has issues with Albee’s depiction of women as often ludicrously larger than life, as powerful and as setting themselves up to be chided for their power. That goes for Albee’s Martha more than for Honey but Honey, too.
Scelsa objects to plays in which homosexual playwrights appear to be attacking women out of some sort of gay revenge. She objects to their all but turning women into drag figures. Into the fray for good measure, she includes Tennessee Williams, and in a misfired running gag, she even hauls Woody Allen into her flailing argument.
In Scelsa’s spoof of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? basics, Martha Washington (Annie McNamara) returns from her father’s faculty party to begin wrangling with husband George Washington (Vin Knight), who’s not the history teacher Albee’s George is. He’s an English teacher who gives a Tennessee Williams course. Not content merely to teach Williams, George also delights in doing lengthy Blanche DuBois impersonations. Incidentally, it’s George not Martha who utters the famous “What a dump!” line.
When Martha and George are not screaming at each other for screaming’s sake, this George—who, Martha explains, is gay—is putting the moves on late-night guest Nick Sloane (Mike Iveson), who’s also gay. And get this: It’s Nick who thinks he’s carrying the child Honey announces on her arrival she’s not carrying. It might be that presenting George and Nick as homosexuals Scelsa is reflecting on the age-old rumor that in Albee’s original manuscript, all the characters were homosexual. That’s a tale Albee vigorously denied.
Whatever Scelsa is doing, it isn’t humorous. This is true of all the loudmouth carryings-on that director John Collins does nothing to discourage. The besetting problem might be that Albee’s Martha is a committed vulgarian as a result of living the purposeless life of a college head’s daughter, whereas Scelsa is content to depict Martha and the others as nothing more than out-and-out vulgar. To that cheap end, the “fuck”s and “fucking”s fly like poorly aimed darts.
Furthermore, she finds fault in Martha’s despair at not having a child. She views it as Albee’s not caring enough to acknowledge the feminist insistence that motherhood is no longer an inextricable part of the definition of “woman.” She thinks that at Albee’s denouement when Martha and George finally reject their shared illusion of having raised a son, this is a defeat for Martha. It isn’t. Their saddened acknowledgment is actually the end of a long night’s journey into a day when at last they face the facts of their contentious marriage and are perhaps able to move forward.
Therefore, if, as Albee actually has it, Martha isn’t defeated, there’s no excuse for Scelsa to even the score by having George defeated, by having him consigned to purgatory in the third act of this intermissionless skit. There’s no reason for him to be tormented by Carmilla, a doctoral candidate in Lucifer costume who does some literary deconstruction that’s no funnier than what’s preceded it.
What’s immediately preceded it also means some radical treatment of Louisa Thompson’s suburban living room/kitchen. That unexpected coup de theatre is heightened by hyperbolic lighting effects courtesy of Ryan Seelig and Ben Williams’ sound design.
(By the way: Is Carmilla intended as an allusion to essayist Camille Paglia? Remember when she was hot on the literary trail?)
At several points in the action, the terms “fan fiction” and “slash fiction” are invoked. For those to whom the terms are new (I’m one), fan fiction is fiction wherein characters from recognizable literature are appropriated for new uses. Slash fiction is fiction in which same-sex characters are declared gay. So the Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf citings are Scelsa’s having a meta-theater joke on herself.
Albee, should he be spinning in his grave, probably has not stopped to laugh at Scelsa’s little gag. Nor would he be laughing at wannabe-poet Nick’s reciting “O Werewolf! My Werewolf!,” a spin on Walt Whitman’s beloved poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” Why is Whitman jollied? Because like Albee and Williams he was also a gay writer? What other explanation?
N.B.: The Elevator Repair Service company is leaving shortly for Dubai to offer Gatz, its stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby . The troupe is scheduled to repeat it this coming January at NYU Skirball Center. Good to know as a reminder for ERS fans of just how stunning the company is at its best. At its worst—as with Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf and as with last season’s extremely poor Measure for Measure—it could be that ERS is in a (temporary?) slump. Let’s hope that some ready repair service is applied for the next outing.
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