For years, when asked what is my favorite movie I have given a list of three. One of the three is Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” (The other two are Lina Wertmueller’s “Swept Away” and Tennessee Williams’ “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof,” and if you sense a trend here about the male/female dynamic, the pattern is not lost on me, either.) I have seen “Virginia Wolfe” easily more than 40 times. I am drawn to the caustic, confrontational dance between the four characters, Albee’s harmony of derisive, drunken dialogue and Mike Nichols’ tense, theatrical tango (in his directorial debut). I learn something about Martha and George, and Nick and Honey – and myself – every time.
Albee is one of those playwrights whose raw and real dialogue is like its own character, much like Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Noel Coward. Albee’s untethered, venomous cadence between George and Martha, while darkly amusing, is only a thin crust protecting two fragile people and their deep core of dysfunctional love/hate. If you haven’t seen it, I promise you’ll be entertained by the cruel and funny barbs that come from the mouths of George and Martha, portrayed by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And their house guests, Nick and Honey are getting a quick college course into their future together, as they try to understand, or just survive, a drunken night with the Wolfes.
For some it may hit too close to home if you ever lived in a house of belligerent drunks. Fortunately, I have not lived that misfortune and can appreciate how such a relationship can exist with or without the clinks of ice-filled glasses of vodka and “bergen.” After all, what relationship does not have its own rich history woven by wounds, rescues, denial, confrontation and protection? Sometimes it is only the history that explains why people stay together at all. Sometimes the pain within can only be endured if contained in that shared history. Being together may be destructive and even soul crushing but being separated would surely mean death, a sad but often all too true reality.
“Virginia Wolfe” is a dark comedy and, thanks to Albee’s writing and Nichols’ direction, it is filled with wild, laugh-out-loud moments and biting cruelty. For these reasons, as well as the brilliant performance by Sandy Dennis as naive and ignorant Honey and a yummy, young George Segal playing opportunistic Nick, “Virginia Wolfe” has remained a top lister for me. Bucket list it.