Edward Albee's career breakthrough came in 1962 with this lacerating portrait of self-delusion within a toxic marriage, graced with brilliant dialogue and eloquent literary allusions. The playwright explores the depths of love-hate relationships via caustically funny verbal warfare that emanates from fear and desperation. This touring edition of Anthony Page's Broadway revival takes a subtler approach than Mike Nichols' revered 1966 film adaptation, methodically building in intensity rather than starting out like gangbusters. It's an exquisitely nuanced rendition that leads to a devastatingly moving conclusion, despite imperfections.
In Page's approach, college professor George and his wife, Martha, initially seem like a rather ordinary if mildly argumentative couple; the conflicts escalate gradually during a long night's journey into day. As they host an impromptu late-night get-together with Nick and Honey, a new professor and his neurotic wife, the chemistry shifts. George and Martha's private fantasy world—established to ease the disappointments of their childless marriage—leads to destructive mind games, followed by a spiritual exorcism of sorts for their union and a possibly fatal blow to the strained marriage of the young guests.
The production's finest asset is Bill Irwin's wonderfully funny and poignant George. A textbook study in passive-aggressive assertiveness, Irwin's sly goading provides the perfect foil to the no-holds-barred bitchiness of George's battle-opponent wife. Irwin's portrayal grows in forcefulness when this mentally castrated husband is pushed to an act of cruelty—paradoxically also a mercy killing. As Martha, Kathleen Turner's characterization likewise grows in profundity and empathy as the stakes in the domestic warfare escalate. With her bourbon-soaked voice and calculatedly detached manner, she creates a compelling portrait of a woman whose vitriolic barbs can't disguise her suppressed vulnerability and heartbreak. What one might hope for from Turner is more vocal variety. Her understated portrayal tends toward the monotonic, missing the poetry in some of Albee's extraordinary dialogue and monologues.
More problematic is Kathleen Early's almost cartoonlike take on the giggly, ludicrous Honey—out of step with the production's realistic style—though she scores strongly when George's games force her to a sobering reality. As the strapping stud Nick, David Furr's excellent performance paints the guy as less of a wimp than in previous portrayals. Though he's a pawn in the elder couple's chess game, there's also a ruthless opportunist at work, adding more fuel to the hell-raising skirmishes.
The climactic "child-killing" scene—half metaphor, half harsh reality—feels more intriguing than ever nowadays, a harbinger of Albee's surrealistic exploration of similar themes in his late-career works. It provides a heart-wrenching capstone to Page's indelible production.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Also Thu. 1 p.m. Mar. 15.) Feb. 9-Mar. 18. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.