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Theater Review: "Who's Afraid" of a three-act war?

On difficult theater

Familial voyeurism: From left, Steve Tarry, Niclas Olsen, Kirsten Deane and Brynne Garman in Lakewood Playhouse's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Photo credit: Kate Lick

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There are roles we actors take on to prove, to ourselves and others, we can bear them. We dash ourselves against the windmills of Hamlet and Lear, Ophelia and Lady Macbeth. We speak of epic, three-hour monsters like Angels in America or August: Osage County with daunted respect. Some scripts, Angels among them, demand controversial behavior: the nudity in Bug, the rape scene in Titus Andronicus, the misogyny of Taming of the Shrew. Those inevitably arouse unsuspecting patrons to shock and disapproval. Then there's Edward Albee's 1962 Tony winner, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That show's in a class all its own, a hair-raiser for actors and audiences alike.

George and Martha are long-married intellectuals. In director Larry Albert's production at Lakewood Playhouse, they look like actors Steve Tarry and Brynne Garman. They've invited a young professor named Nick (Niclas R. Olson) and his girlish wife Honey (Kirsten Deane) for late-night drinks. As the party wears on, there'll be many such drinks, each fueling the fire of a head game George and Martha have been playing for years. The object of this game is to emotionally destroy the other player. If you've never been in a relationship that stooped to such games, hey, more power to you. Some of us recognize them all too well.

Producing this show is like saddling a dragon. I caught struggles for lines, most adroitly concealed. The blocking isn't great for performance in the round. There are patrons who won't know what to make of all its profanity, carnality and perma-drunk savagery. What unnerves most, though, is the fact that this drama has no hero or heroine for us to cheer. There's no tragic downfall, as its characters bring misery on themselves. Yet its acting, on all four counts but especially from Deane and Garman, is extraordinary, some of the best we'll see all year.

If you expect theater to help you chuckle and unwind (without thinking too hard) after work, stay the hell away from Woolf. It remains unnerving half a century after its debut. I recommend it, but only for brave, upper-echelon folks willing to challenge their own definition of "entertainment." I don't like George or Martha. We're not supposed to. This play isn't "fun." But y'know what? This weekend I also caught The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese's biopic of a smart but amoral pirate who doesn't win and shouldn't. That audience sat gamely through three hours of depravity. As the end credits rolled, cosmic justice had not been restored. To date, that film has grossed more than 80 million dollars. Couldn't some of its audience lap over onto similarly disturbing live performances? Does every piece of art need to tell us we're loved, life is fair, and the innocent will never feel wolves at their throats?

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 2, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood, $19-$25, 253.588.0042

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