The children’s ditty “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” has never been delivered with such menace as it is, slightly altered, in Edward Albee’s 1962 masterpiece.
Punctuating awkward moments during one of the most notorious after-parties ever to inhabit the stage, the song is first heard in the early-morning hours. A couple returns home after a college-faculty social affair.
Their alcohol-fueled verbal jousting has already begun when they’re visited by a younger couple new to the campus and clueless about the nightmare they’re in for.
Flawlessly cast and paced like a marathon whose top runners jostle for first position after a sloshy start, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” returns to Broadway in a splendid production from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Pam MacKinnon.
This gifted, Chicago-based director also staged last season’s memorable Pulitzer Prize winner, “Clybourne Park.” With “Woolf” -- a verbal and sometimes physical slugfest that passes its three-plus hours in what feels like a New York minute -- she reveals as fine an attunement to a modern classic as she has for new work.
George (Tracy Letts) and Martha (Amy Morton) are the boozy couple who have arrived at middle age in the barracuda tank of academe, a small liberal-arts college. They live in the benign disarray of Todd Rosenthal’s comfy house, overstuffed with frumpy furniture and books spilling off the shelves.
She’s the blowzy daughter of the school’s president, used to getting her way with Daddy and having her way with new young professors. George is the history teacher who started out full of promise but settled into complacency. After more than two decades, he isn’t even a full professor.
“If you existed, I’d divorce you,” Martha cracks.
Their idea of spicing up their lives is decidedly early 1960s, from bed-hopping to the consumption of an astonishing amount of liquor.
They indulge a penchant for baiting each other, both in private and with observers turned, in the case of Nick (Madison Dirks) and Honey (Carrie Coon) into accomplices. George and Martha have many secrets, chief among them an absent son about to turn 21. They’ve agreed never to mention him in public; on this evening, Martha’s breach of that promise opens a floodgate, though what flows is bile and blood.
Balding, bespectacled and paunchy under his dark cardigan, Letts’s George seems a milquetoast until, crucially, he proves himself as lethal on the rebound as his wife. Morton takes a reverse journey, from savage wittiness to blackest remorse as Martha’s last defenses are stripped away.
No less perfectly played are Dirks’s Nick, a biologist seething with ambition, and Coon’s Honey, a silly girl with money who lacks the brains and stamina to be a future Martha. George sees Nick as the terrifying wave of a test-tube future without blemish and free of art, in which “the ants will take over the world.”
“Virginia Woolf” is that rarity, a three-act, two-intermission drama that grabs you and never lets go.
George and Martha will remain together, but hardly on a note of hope. Credit MacKinnon and her perfectly synchronized quartet for executing the play not as an allegory but as a real-time excursion into lives made unbearably common by compromise and self-delusion. It’s unforgiving, and it’s also unforgettable.
At the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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