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Entertainment Review: George and Martha redux in 'everyone's fine with virginia woolf'

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NEW YORK — Remember those vicious, bewildering party games played by the hosts in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Well, they just got a hell of a lot more complicated.

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You see, this immortal play’s antagonistic spouses and prisoners of academe, George and Martha, have been transported from the early 1960s to the 21st century.

 And the borders between “truth and illusion,” to quote a favorite phrase of Martha’s, are zigzagging with a new ferocity that even they can’t keep up with.

Consider, for example, the very title of Kate Scelsa’s high- (and I mean high-) spirited new play, which opened on Tuesday night at Abrons Arts Center in an Elevator Repair Service production. It’s “Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf,” which would seem to indicate a serious sea change in the once-fearful Martha’s attitude.

Her full name, for the record, is now Martha Washington (Annie McNamara). Washington was her maiden name and it’s been adopted by her husband, George (Vin Knight). It seems that since these two first went mano a mano on Broadway in 1962 (and on screen in 1966), Martha has acquired a feminist confidence and conscience.

When they make their fabled entrance into their disheveled house, it’s George who now mutters discontentedly, “What a dump!” (That’s one of the few instances in which Albee is quoted directly.) As for Martha, anticipating the arrival of her unsuspecting guests, she enters singing blithely, “I’m totes cool with Virginia Woolf ... I like how she was super gay.”

That rejiggered setup might suggest that this latest offering from the troupe that gave us the dazzling “Gatz” (after “The Great Gatsby”) is a dedicated work of political correction. Such a point of view is reflected in a dialogue in the program between Scelsa and John Collins, the director, that reaches the conclusion that Martha — as the agency-deprived creation of a male playwright — “must be avenged.”

Fortunately, Scelsa has a take-no-prisoners approach to satire that sends deconstructionist theories of feminist and gender studies way up into the ether, where they flare and fizzle like fireworks. This “Virginia Woolf” takes place in an age when a text is meant to be mined and ransacked at our higher institutions of learning.

So while the original George and Martha may have been experts in the art of deceptive fictions, they have nothing on the inhabitants of “Everyone’s Fine.” George and Martha Washington — and their younger guests, Nick and Honey Sloane (Mike Iveson and April Matthis) — have a whole new virtual tool kit of reality-questioning devices to play with.

Fan fiction — and its same-sex subgenre, slash fiction — figure prominently in the dialogue. (Nick writes stories in which he becomes pregnant by a werewolf.) The work of Tennessee Williams, which is George’s specialty as a professor, is recited and exploded at length. And just so you know, “Woody Allen” are fighting words.

In addition to the holdover characters from Albee’s play, there’s a late arrival to the party, Carmilla (Lindsay Hockaday), a Ph.D. candidate and a vampire who feeds on human neuroses instead of blood. And throughout, characters comment on the clichés of theater today — from keeping the running time of a play under 90 minutes to the various interpolations used to regain an audience’s flagging attention. (The ones here are doozies, courtesy of properties designer Amanda Villalobos.)

In other words, “Everyone’s Fine” is meta to the max. Theatergoers acquainted with Albee’s play (and the byzantine mazes of academic theory) will savor this production’s dizzy echo chamber of words and visuals. These extend to Louisa Thompson’s set — a wittily artificial blend of two and three dimensions; Kaye Voyce’s costumes, which include falsies for Martha and a muumuu for George; Ryan Seelig’s nightmare lighting and the invaluable Ben Williams’ disjunctive sound design.

Those unacquainted with the play’s literary arcana can sit back and watch the cast riff jazzily on Scelsa’s punch-drunk dialogue. McNamara gives us a Martha stripped of her usual primal earthiness, a woman who is willfully, calculatedly self-conscious. Knight’s George has a delirious time channeling not only the Williams characters Maggie the Cat and Blanche DuBois but also Judy Garland.

As a boyish but foxy Nick, Iveson is amusingly flexible. Shrewdly played by a terrific Matthis, the once-dim-witted Honey emerges as the sanest person on stage, though sanity here is obviously relative, if not irrelevant.

Some caveats: Words are too often swallowed, and words are what make the play spin. And while it clocks in at the requisite less-than-90 minutes, “Everyone’s Fine” doesn’t sustain the streamlined momentum and knife-edged discipline of the Elevator Repair Service at its best.

But there’s a cheerfulness in the chaos that, curiously, harks back to the days of pre-“Virginia Woolf” absurdism, when the young Albee was still in the thrall of Beckett and Ionesco. If “Everyone’s Fine” is partly a rebuke to what male playwrights do to their female characters, it also bubbles with a love of theater at its most brazenly theatrical that Albee would surely recognize.

Production Notes:

“Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf”

Through June 30 at Abrons Arts Center, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, abronsartscenter.org. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

By Kate Scelsa; directed by John Collins; sets by Louisa Thompson; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lighting by Ryan Seelig; sound by Ben Williams; props by Amanda Villalobos; stage manager, Maurina Lioce; production manager, Liz Nielsen; technical director, Aaron Amodt. Presented by Elevator Repair Service, John Collins, artistic director, Ariana Smart Truman, producing director.

Cast: Vin Knight (George Washington), Annie McNamara (Martha Washington), Mike Iveson (Nick Sloane), April Matthis (Honey Sloane),Lindsay Hockaday (Carmilla, Ph.D. candidate).

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

BEN BRANTLEY © 2018 The New York Times

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