After 50 Years, Theater Goers Still Afraid Of 'Woolf'

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Saturday evening is the opening night of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and it will be 50 years to the day since the debut of the play on Broadway. Weekend Edition host Scott Simon talks with Barbara Chai of The Wall Street Journal.


On October 13, 1962, George and Martha walked onstage drinking, swearing, smoking, wounding, even loving each other in their own way. Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" opened 50 years ago tonight. And tonight, that play returns to Broadway. Barbara Chai joins us. She's a reporter who writes on arts for The Wall Street Journal and is an editor on their Speakeasy blog. She joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

BARBARA CHAI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is a Steppenwolf Theater of Chicago production. Stars Amy Morton as Martha, and Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright, as George. How do they do with roles that people are always going to associate with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton?

CHAI: Well, interestingly enough, Tracy and Amy have actually played husband and wife eight previous times in different productions. And so many of the audience members come in and actually mistake them for a real couple, which they are not, unlike Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who were a real couple. And so it's interesting. Onstage they do come across as two people who have been together forever with all of those ineffable qualities of love and marriage and cruelty.

SIMON: I'll put the plot just this way: a small college town dinner party from hell, in which the host and hostess play destructive verbal games. So, how do you get an audience to watch a three-hour play of a dinner party that they'd probably want to leave from as soon as possible?

CHAI: There's a lot of wit. Of course, Edward Albee's classic play. And on stage, they're in this confined space. Unlike the film, they can't the leave the room. They can't get in the car and drive around. And so I think they rely a lot on their physicality and the comedy of that, the destruction of that. It's really interesting to see them sort of reinterpret this play just in one space with completely new characters. And it's as if this play were written five years ago instead of 50.

SIMON: To the best of your knowledge, did they update it or is it just that, is it that penetrating?

CHAI: Oh no. It's - Edward Albee's very strict about sticking to the letter of his plays. In fact, this is the first time he's given the rights to Steppenwolf to produce one of his plays. That's how strict he has been. And Tracy said, when I interviewed him for the Journal, that he was in rehearsals at Steppenwolf and Edward Albee was sitting eight feet away - and he's playing George. Now, Tracy Letts has won the Pulitzer, has won a Tony for writing "August: Osage County." This is his Broadway acting debut, however, and he said to me can you imagine how intimidating that is for an actor to have Edward Albee the playwright sitting eight feet away? So, they haven't made up any other lines. They haven't actually modernized the play at all. I really think it's a question of the staging. It's a question of how Tracy and Amy inhabit these characters in fresh ways. When I saw it, I was just completely moved. Like I said, if you had told me this was just written five years ago, I would have believed you.

SIMON: Barbara Chai, reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" opens on Broadway tonight, 50 years after it first did. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHAI: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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