“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” launches Arena’s two-month-long festival of Edward Albee’s work, and naturally, a vigorous “Virginia Woolf” — Albee’s best-known play — gets things off to a delectable start. Arena has embarked on a serious effort to weave into its programming intriguing work from other companies around the city and the nation; Steppenwolf, birthplace of so much first-rate theater, was a smart place to look.
Its meticulously plotted-out “Virginia Woolf” paves a delightfully scathing path into Albee’s world of figurative daggers and demons; the play just may be the sharpest-witted ever purged from the psyche of an American writer. The devastating impact here is magnified by the actors playing the evening’s victims, the characters targeted by George and Martha in their vicious game of “get the guests.” As Nick and Honey, the young academic couple drawn into George and Martha’s manipulative death-grip, Madison Dirks and Carrie Coon both firmly hold their own.
Coon may be a level above; her Honey feels definitive, an ideal embodiment of this wallflower who bumps into marriage with a handsome go-getter via a hysterical pregnancy. As she lapses into a brandy-fueled stupor on a night of bottomless cocktails, Coon’s Honey sinks deeper into cluelessness and distress. The actress is effortlessly convincing. The blurrier she becomes, the clearer we see that she and Nick are trapped in a union far less honest than their hosts’.
Alcohol, by contrast, seems to sharpen the instincts of this George and Martha; no matter how many bottles they drain, Letts and Morton never appear to get even a tiny bit tipsy. As a stimulant, it seems, nothing can top vengeance.
Nick and Honey appear late one night at the doorstep of George and Martha, who are, respectively, a history professor of no more than middling achievement and the daughter of the university’s domineering president. Their marriage is beyond tempestuous; it’s a salted wound of disappointment and resentment. On this particular night of drinking — you get the sense it’s one in an ongoing series — the recrimination that ensues seems to redefine the standard for disastrous social events.