In 1962, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — a comically serious exploration of power, sexuality, and the American id — began its year-and-a-half-long, Tony-winning New York run. Featuring an uneasy ménage à quatre between two academic couples in an idyllic college town, the drama takes place in a comfortable living room but draws on tragic structure for its truly dangerous denouement. It’s probably Albee’s best-known play, and it holds up, both as a document of its time and as a towering accomplishment in the American theater.
Kate Scelsa’s riff on the above, Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf — staged by Elevator Repair Service and running at Abrons Arts Center through June 30 — might not wear quite so well. Scelsa, an ERS company member, sets out to parody Albee’s work, taking the male playwright to task for his treatment of female characters — in this case, Virginia Woolf’s Martha, an intelligent, frustrated housewife who ends the original play shattered by the collapse of a life-sustaining illusion. (She and her husband, unable to have a child, long nurtured the fantasy of an imaginary son, until the presence of strangers forced them to give up the lie.) There’s rich material here, and ample opportunity for a feminist response to fifty-year-old gender politics. But Albee’s play is already so sardonically high-strung, crammed full of angry jabs and potent booze and weaponized parasols (yes, you read that right), that a dramatic response might be more compelling if it veered in the opposite direction — slowing down, taking Virginia Woolf apart for closer examination.
Scelsa’s 75-minute romp is, instead, an amped-up, stomach-churning take on the original. As in Albee’s text, George (Vin Knight), a tenured professor, and his wife, Martha (Annie McNamara), host a younger academic couple, Nick (Mike Iveson) and Honey (April Matthis), for an after-party following a college-crowd soiree. Scelsa scrambles a few of the plotlines: Albee’s Honey has a hysterical pregnancy, while in this new version, Nick does. And when the couples remix and pair off, Martha grabs Honey, not Nick, for an intimate encounter, leaving the two men alone for the same. There’s a lot of confrontational banter; a meandering discourse about fan fiction and its queerer subgenre, slash fiction; and a smattering of digs at male playwrights from other periods and their female characters: Tennessee Williams’s Blanche, Ibsen’s Nora.
In a program note, Scelsa explains that, out of love for Albee’s original Martha, she wanted to write a version that fixes what Albee got wrong. But this isn’t it. Everyone’s Fine is a drunker, angrier, less coherent incarnation of George and Martha’s after-party, one that descends further into the depths and never returns. There’s a surprising whiff of homophobia in the uncomfortable exchanges between George and Nick, and despite being ostensibly aimed at giving Martha the stage time she deserves, the play ends with a tortured George in the spotlight, being lectured by a late-arriving figure (Lindsay Hockaday) in a vampire cape and a Sarah Lawrence sweatshirt. What does it all mean? Well, if Virginia Woolf stands in for a whole host of things we need to grapple with as a culture — intellectualism, feminism, queerness — we’re not fine, and it looks like we still have a long way to go.