The first time I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a few months ago and when I sat down in the theatre I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that it is a famous play and that I thought the title was funny. After the first ten minutes or so I thought I had it all figured out: it was a comedy of manners about a loud wife and her grumpy husband. I settled in for a night of easy laughs, maybe a bit of slapstick along the way. Little did I know that by the time the first act was over, the audience would be left in a stunned silence, which was finally broken by the man sitting behind me who let out a quiet “…Jesus.”
Not that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf isn’t funny. It is, in fact, absolutely hilarious… Until it’s not.
Underneath the layer of slightly absurd jokes, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is dark and bitter to the bone. Albee locks us into a room with two married couples for a night and does not open the door again until they have torn each other to pieces, leaving a whole lot of empty liquor bottles in their wake. Society’s expectations and conventions are shattered to pieces one by one, ripping and tearing until there is not a single illusion left. Every time you think they have surely hit rock bottom, there turn out to be three more basements to explore.
This play literally moves from “Fun and Games” to “The Exorcism.” As the story unfolds it becomes increasingly brutal until you want to reach out to the stage and beg the characters to please just stop. It is visceral and claustrophobic and leaves you feeling a lot more pessimistic about human nature than when you first came in.
As a wise man once said: “…Jesus.”