Robert Schneider in Connecticut
18th October 2022
Like many people who work in higher education, I’m trained every year on questions of harassment, sexual and otherwise. This year my online lesson included a list of examples, among them: “sexual looks or gestures,” “sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions” and “referring to someone as ‘hunk,’ ‘doll,’ ‘babe,’ or ‘honey.’” I wondered if, with this list in hand, one might create a version of Edward Albee’s 1962 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which is set in a small, New England college town, that would comply with twenty-first century standards of collegiate behaviour.
Emma Pfitzer Price and Nate Janis. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
You could, but it would be a much shorter play—also much duller. I’m happy to report the last adjective can’t be applied to the current offering at Yale Rep directed by James Bundy, a production that gleefully follows Albee’s text into the tall grass of the incorrect.
In the wee hours of Sunday morning, George and Martha come home from a party offered by the college president to inaugurate the school year. They can’t go to bed, however; Martha has invited a young couple they met at the party to come to the house. “What did they do,” asks George testily. “…go home to get some sleep first?”
When they finally arrive, Nick and Honey are subjected to interrogations, tests and aggressions that make the examples given in my annual training look like the first, blushing efforts of very timid harassers indeed. The newcomers are insulted, their past is probed, their intimate secrets exposed and ridiculed.
Martha makes multiple references to Nick’s physique and eventually takes him to bed. George reduces Honey to a simpering mass who curls up on the bathroom floor and peels the labels off liquor bottles. Every torment that George and Martha inflict on their guests, however, is only a side show to the vivisection they practice on each other. George explains, “…when you get through the skin…slosh aside the organs…and get down to the bone… you haven’t got all the way, yet. There’s something inside the bone—the marrow—and that’s what we’re going to get at.”
On the Yale Rep stage, the marrow is extracted without anesthesia—unless you count prodigious quantities of booze.
Dan Donohue and René Augesen. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
Every successful production of Who’s Afraid…? needs to answer two questions and keep the answers fresh all evening. The first is, “Why don’t Nick and Honey grab their coats and run?” Albee provides some purely practical reasons: Honey’s timeout on the bathroom floor (“curled up in a fetal position…sucking her thumb”) is one. In addition, Nick stays to seek revenge for earlier slights, but what really keeps the young’uns in the older couple’s book-lined living room (intricately conceived and fully realized by scenic designer Miguel Urbino) is the presentiment that they’re starring into the glass onion in which they see the outlines of their own future.
They’re being harassed, alright, but they’re also being frankly and fully initiated into campus life. To the extent that harassment presumes innocence in the harassed, Nick and Honey are beyond it; young as they are, they’re thoroughly corrupt, a trait their hosts can sense as surely as hyenas smell blood a thousand yards off. But perhaps the ultimate force that keeps the party going is momentum; the four are embarked on a twisty-turning carnival ride with revelations at every turn. Where will it end?
The second question is: “Why do George and Martha stay together?” A therapist—even an advice columnist—could tell right away that their joint life has devolved into a permanent circus of gratuitous cruelty. I submit that in our modern society of glancing acquaintance, controlled and polite relationships from which the very odour of harassment is forever banished, the marrow-chewing intimacy of George and Martha’s marriage is shockingly attractive. Martha herself allows that “George… keeps learning the games we play as quickly as I can change the rules.” Like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Albee’s combatants are perfectly attuned to each other. Though unkind to the world, they’re indispensable to each other. The demonstration they put on for Nick and Honey is much more than a cautionary tale.
When dawn finally comes, illuminating George and Martha in Jiahao ‘Neil’ Qui’s glorious floodlights—affirming the new day and absolving them of sin—they’re more alone-together than ever. Yet if they were to run into Nick and Honey somewhere on campus later in the week (or month, or year) there would be deep understanding and something like respect. Harassment was everybody’s path to a painful awareness of the human condition.
The cast. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.
René Augesen is near perfect as Martha; she’s fierce on the warpath, pathetic when appealing for sympathy, and reduced to rock-bottom in the last scene which Bundy has directed with searing tenderness.
From the other side of the marital net, Dan Donahue returns every shot. A cerebral, ironic George, this is a man whose intellect allows him to understand his predicament but not to mend it. Both actors keep the lines coming, bringing the evening to a close at just over three hours with two intermissions.
As Honey, Emma Pfitzer Price gets laughs without appearing to seek them. She melts into a chair like a rag doll only to jump gleefully on the couch to cheer on the evening’s violence. Her drunken antics never obscure the desperately unhappy young woman within.
As Nick, Nate Janis is every bit as buff as the script requires, something unprecedented in the productions I’ve seen. Decked out in a blue suit and dark tie provided by costume designer Kyle J. Artone, he looks like James Bond and seems just as dangerous, so it’s a mystery why he lets George override him so often. Janis becomes more effective in later scenes when Nick begins to form a bond with his tormentors.
Bundy and the cast are hyper-alert to the humor in the script. On opening night, I heard small gasps and guffaws coming here and there at odd moments we don’t normally think of as funny. The big laughs were still there, of course, and indulged in with guilty pleasure—as if cruelty was everybody’s secret cup of tea—but the small laughs were more revelatory: the play was hitting audience members individually as well as collectively.
Have we developed a connoisseurship of harassment? In any case, it appears from this production that New Haven ‘gets’ it.