Breaking It Down

Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, and Madison Dirks in Pam MacKinnon’s new staging of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW

I've heard more than one person musing about whether we “needed” a new revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” given that the stunning production with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin was still relatively fresh in our memory. After seeing Pam MacKinnon’s new staging, my answer is a resounding yes.

Unlike that recent production or the classic movie that pits the conflict between George and Martha as a battle royale, MacKinnon makes their relationship far less explosive — and considerably more harrowing. It's a tribute to the enduring power of Edward Albee's play that a new reading of it can be so powerful and so enlightening while taking nothing away from previous productions.

The play unfolds over one long, alcohol-soaked evening in the early 1960s as George, a professor at a small New England college, goes at it with his wife Martha, daughter of the college president. Caught in the crossfire are Nick, a rising young professor, and Honey, his mousy wife, who come to George and Martha’s house late at night after a faculty party. The lacerating barbs and violent resentments that make up George and Martha’s daily dialogue devolves into a take-no-prisoners confrontation with Nick and Honey where, however ugly, the truth is at stake.

Yet, what makes this play so fascinating is the underlying theme –– a recurring one of Albee's –– that our survival, or at least our ability to cope, is dependent on the lies we tell ourselves and in which we must enroll others to keep existential angst at bay.

What makes MacKinnon’s production so mesmerizing is that beneath the venom and the vitriol, it’s clear George and Martha love and need one another. Each is an intellectual heavyweight, but neither is emotionally mature. They attack one another at the same time they cling to one another and share falsehoods to shield themselves from devastation they can’t handle. They are caught in a trap of their own making and, horrific as it is to Nick and Honey, they seem unwilling to get out. Over the course of the evening, Nick is forced to confront the lies on which he’s structured his life, while Honey retreats into alcohol and denial. MacKinnon has balanced the focus among the four characters, to the extent possible, and the result is a provocative and deliciously unsettling masterpiece.

The company is superlative as well. Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as George and Martha work flawlessly together. Each performance is complex and riveting. We laugh at them and we ache for them because the hollowness and frustration — and the rage they inspire — are on vivid display, even as the suppressed need and love for one another lend them a quiet desperation and sustained tension that resonate through the evening.

Madison Dirks as Nick gives the most complete performance I’ve ever seen of this role. While Nick’s brashness and cocksureness wither under George’s attack late in the play, Dirks shows that Nick, beneath a fragile veneer, remains fully capable of the fight. Carrie Coon as Honey provides an incisive portrayal of a woman reduced to a term of endearment, whose course toward alcoholism and despair is only too plain.

Put this outstanding production on your must-see list for this fall.

Korey Jackson and Colman Domingo in Domingo’s “Wild With Happy.” | JOAN MARCUS

Death does strange things to people. Do what we can to keep it at arm’s length, avoid it, or pretend we’re not affected, when it comes to you it does a number on you. Perhaps not with the level of absurdity that Colman Domingo mines in his outstanding new play “Wild With Happy,” but beneath the antic hilarity and over-the-top characters he has created, there is a sober message about life. Death teaches us that life is finite and we should seize joy where we can.

The play tells the story of Gil, a jaded New Yorker played by Domingo, and how he reacts to the death of his mother, Adelaide. Racked with guilt for a relationship unresolved and just wanting the death part over, he has his mother’s body cremated. This causes untold consternation in his Aunt Glo, who has specific ideas about how death should be integrated into life. His best friend Mo, who is transgender, tries to shake Gil out of his head and finally get him to be real, while a hunky funeral director wants to show him that sex can be more than just a way to avoid the feelings of the moment.

The play unfolds in a series of fast-paced scenes that sweep the audience up into the energy. From Aunt Glo’s upbraiding of Gil while she cleans out Adelaide’s closet –– at one point, she pauses over a pair of shoes and says, “Adelaide would have wanted me to have these” –– to Mo’s shanghaiing Gil on a road trip, Gil tries desperately to hang on to the image of life that he’s crafted for himself, only to find that reality gets in the way.

The play ends in Disneyworld, where Adelaide was “wild with happy,” even as she knew she was dying. It’s finally there that Gil can pause a moment and let the enormity of his loss sink in, which is what Aunt Glo wanted from the beginning. Amid the comedy, the absurdity, and the Disney fantasy, Gil finds the reality he needs to heal. It’s a brilliant conceit and a poignant commentary on anyone who thinks for a moment they’re really in control.

Domingo gives a sensational and subtle performance as Gil. Korey Jackson is sweet and heartwarming as Terry, the funeral director. Maurice McRae is outstanding — and outsized — as Mo. Sharon Washington, who plays both Adelaide (in flashback sequences) and Aunt Glo, gives a high wattage performance that is as grounded and honest as it is huge in scale. Under the direction of Robert O’Hara, we come to love these characters and are, perhaps, a bit chastened about our own missed opportunities at finding the wild happiness we all long for.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF | Booth Theatre | 225 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu.-Fri. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $67-$132 | telecharge.com or 212-639-6200

WILD WITH HAPPY | The Public Theater | 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. & Astor Pl. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $75-$85 | publictheater.org or 212-967-7555

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