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George and Martha are a middle aged married couple, whose charged relationship is defined by vitriolic verbal battles, which underlies what seems like an emotional dependence upon each other. This verbal abuse is fueled by an excessive consumption of alcohol. George being an associate History professor in a New Carthage university where Martha's father is the President adds an extra dimension to their relationship. Late one Saturday evening after a faculty mixer, Martha invites Nick and Honey, an ambitious young Biology professor new to the university and his mousy wife, over for a nightcap. As the evening progresses, Nick and Honey, plied with more alcohol, get caught up in George and Martha's games of needing to hurt each other and everyone around them. The ultimate abuse comes in the form of talk of George and Martha's unseen sixteen year old son, whose birthday is the following day. Written by
probably one of the best arguments for why AA should exist; volatile, overwrought drama at its richest
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf leaves no scabs or stones unturned with the characters. George and Martha are a couple who have a marriage that is truly love-hate. They can never be called too unemotional, though to say whether or not they're being truthful at all in the 'games' they play with married Nick and Honey is a little trickier. Martha invited them- at her father's insistence (he IS the chairman of the university where George and Nick are professors)- at two in the morning for a quick drink. Or rather, make that many drinks, like chain drinking, if one could call it that, where George and Martha prove themselves as pros in that area, with bitter slinging of enraged bouts of bile at one or the other.
This goes on the rest of the night, also leading to a roadhouse on the way to drive a flustered Nick and hammered Honey home, and then it starts all over again, with Nick and Honey picking up the tortured and, as well, fractured personalities of this middle-aged couple. Bitter, enraptured, hateful, and, in a way, also sort of filling a void, George and Martha become two of the most powerful characters in modern drama.
Edward Albee's play is full of the kind of stinging dialog that made it controversial in the 1960s, and today it still retains its potential for hitting its characters on to the audience in a shockingly overwrought and, in connection with this, very funny manner. How can one not cringe and give a laugh of relief/perplexity when George goes to get a shotgun after getting p-o'd by Martha and then opening it up to everyone's shock as... an umbrella!
There's a dementia to these characters, but it's one that makes for the kind of drama that is lacerating and, as off-putting as the guessing game that the son element becomes in the equation (dead or not dead?), it somehow works. This was before most dramas of today, which are made with that big colossal twist that suddenly jolts the characters into perspective. Here, it just makes them more human and fallible and deconstructed. As Mike Nichols directs it, he doesn't shy from getting personal with his angles, close and intrinsic as, in a weird way comparable with, Bergman's Persona, also released that year.
What Nichols and Albee present for audiences is a logical next step following other plays from before them that broke ground from the likes of Miller, Beckett and, especially, Williams- it's more adult, or rather more for mature audiences (the first quasi rated R movie ever released), and it hits to a cynical nerve that was further gestating by this time in America, that everything would not be alright in the American marriage, that something, as Martha says, will "SNAP!"
It should also be mentioned, acting here is classic, fearless. Burton and Taylor have rarely been as good as they are at digging so deep into these characters that, especially with Burton, we can't imagine these people being anyone else. It takes a little to get used to Segal and Sandy Dennis (the latter because her character isn't quite as "deep" as the others), but then again their characters are the uncomfortable outsiders, "us" as one might say (however, as the play peels the layers away from the characters they're all rotten and ultimately very vulnerable instead of just "normal").
It packs a punch, it jiggles its little glass full of bourbon or brandy or gin, and as a first feature from its director it could only get better from here. It's a dangerously fun, dangerously emotionally violent picture. Will look forward to seeing it next time it's on TV
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