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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Party Girl! Productions
Common Ground Theatre
Through July 12

Only time will tell if we've really hit upon the raison d'etre for Party Girl! Productions: to present its titled, er, archetype—the party girl—in all of her varying aspects across theatrical literature. Until then, we have a production that Edward Albee would likely lick his vulpine chops over. For after bringing out the boorish Beverly in their first production, last year's Abigail's Party, co-conspirators Nicole Farmer and Mark Jeffrey Miller have set us up with Martha, that uniquely forbidding female lead in the hellish Mr. Albee's groundbreaking domestic drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Actually, the two works have more than a bit in common. In both, the action centers on gatherings that are parties in name only, where hosts ply naifs and other players with booze until defenses crumble, embarrassing personal secrets are revealed and dysfunctional sex is, um, achieved. But the extreme levels of gamesmanship and ruthlessness that Martha and George, a faculty couple at a small private school in the Northeast, display in breaking down both their party guests and each other set this work well apart. The result is a three-act gauntlet whose lacerating wit doesn't begin to disguise the damage all of the parties are sustaining.

Miller's work as George is truly harrowing. Part wraith, part interpersonal black hole, his emptiness and hunger—for revenge, respect, companionship and fellow feeling—repeatedly threatens to consume everyone around him. As his chosen companion, Farmer's Martha seems an immovable object equal to this irresistible force. As their guests, Ryan Brock ultimately gets at the underlying disillusionment of Nick, the new biology teacher, while Beth Popelka does what's permissible with possibly the only real party girl in Albee's script, Nick's wife, the dismissively named Honey.

But how well the 45-year-old script has aged is of more than momentary concern. By now, George's flimsy cavil that the new biology teacher must be in league with Nazi-era eugenicists doesn't convince anyone on stage or us. In retrospect, the sudden ham-handedness in certain accusatory lines on parenting and marriage clearly points to issues the playwright had off-stage, and tend to remind us this was one of Albee's earliest forays against the breeders. George's mystified preoccupation with the real (and therefore disgraceful) reasons people get married is, by now, a rather conspicuous tell—and perhaps an indication of a writer of severely limited empathy when he wrote it.

As Martha says of herself, does Albee also ultimately have "a fine sense of the ridiculous but no sense of humor"? The argument is persuasive. Though there are jests, jibes and ruinous games aplenty, be assured of one thing: This lengthy evening in one couple's insufficiently private hell is no joke.

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