Playing Highball 

Edward Albee's battling spouses are too lightweight in Altarena's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It's nice that an Alameda community theater is taking on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, because there's nothing nice about Edward Albee's 1962 classic of marital cruelty. As husband George describes it, the whole play is "a couple of middle-aged types hacking at each other" for three hours, relieved only by two intermissions. Some neighborhood troupes would balk at the cussing alone.

It's also interesting that the Altarena Playhouse managed to get the rights to do the play just before the Broadway production starring Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin comes to San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre as part of SHN's Best of Broadway season. The timing is unlikely to be a problem, however. As exhausting as the endless badgering is, it merely whets the appetite for depths in the text as yet unplumbed in Richard Robert Bunker's intimate production in the round.

As soon as Sue Trigg's Martha staggers into the room clad in a tacky party getup of nightshirt and capris, you know it's going to be a bumpy night. Braying, baby-talking, and reeling with exaggerated drunkenness, she's excruciatingly grating, and to a certain extent she's supposed to be. Self-described as "loud" and "vulgar," she's also supposed to be a university president's daughter married to a professor whom she detests as a professional failure, which is a layer missing in Trigg's portrayal. There's nothing cultured about her coarseness: She comes off more like a trucker's daughter.

Robert Rossman gives George a soft-spoken eloquence and grudging tolerance that's particularly believable in passive-aggressive digs and intellectual bullying of the younger couple who have been invited over after a party in the wee hours of the morning. It's only when he loses his temper that he loses his credibility, which somewhat defangs the tension as a whole.

Nick and Honey are in the room only to give George and Martha a captive audience, so much so that their names never come up in dialogue. Jamie Olsen seems out of his depth as faculty wunderkind Nick, coming to life only in reactions. At first Lisa Price seems stiffer even than the uncomfortable situation warrants, but she's quite funny as Honey gets blotto and loosens up.

And honestly, though the nonstop abuse and booze-guzzling gets so oppressive so quickly that it's hard to fathom why the younger two don't just leave, as long as you're stuck there with these people, a stiff drink starts sounding like not at all a bad idea.

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