The really odd couple

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" has been called many things, among them an American classic, an examination of a tempestuous marriage, a dissection of the fear of emptiness. An adjective not so commonly applied to the play is: funny.

In a Village Voice review in 1962 when the play debuted, critic Michael Smith referred to it as "a crucial event in the birth of a contemporary American theatre."

Playwright Edward Albee, who was then barely known, shocked audiences with the play's verbal sparring between the brassy, liquor-soaked Martha and her husband, George, a failed academic. But in the revival currently running through March 6 at Boston's Wilbur Theatre before heading off to Broadway on March 20, the laugh factor - acerbic though it may be - is precisely what may amaze viewers this time around.

One person who's not at all surprised about the humor, however, is Mr. Albee.

At a press conference in Boston, he referred back to a 1976 production that he directed with actors Colleen Dewhurst and Ben Gazzara in the lead roles. "As much as I admired Albert Schneider's production with Uta [Hagen] and Arthur [Hill], [mine] did bring out some sort of the dark humor in the play," he says. "People were saying to me they'd seen the intensity of the first production and then say, 'I didn't know it was so funny!' "

It's been more than five years since Albee's producer suggested that it was time for another revival of the play that won Albee his first Tony Award. The initial hurdle, of course, was to find two powerhouse performers capable of portraying the manipulative couple. Albee's hearty stamp of approval went to two actors who have sharpened their acting chops with the chisels of comedy: Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner. Albee said listening to them read the roles took him back to the first time he heard Hagen and Hill go through the lines.

Ms. Turner, who was last seen in Boston in 2002 in "The Graduate," says she's always responded to the play's comic punch.

"This play is not as well known for its humor - and its black humor - which I appear, through my choices in my career, to have a predilection for," she says in her smoky voice. Indeed, a quick scan of her résumé, from the films "War of the Roses" to "Serial Mom," confirms that assessment.

Mr. Irwin has established himself as a comic performer by founding the New Vaudeville movement and honing his physical comedy skills in shows like "Fool Moon." It's a talent that easily translated from his portrayal of Lucky in the famed Lincoln Center production of Samuel Becket's "Waiting for Godot," a play for which he and Albee have a common reverence. While Irwin says his life as a clown has "not been misspent," it was his previous work with Albee that intensified his interest in the mechanics of making people laugh.

"Edward, in his way, has written a very funny play. He is an alchemist," says Irwin, who performed in Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" in 2000 and was intrigued by the response. "[That] was some of the hottest laughter I've ever felt as an actor in front of an audience, and I've spent a lot of years trying to make people laugh.... Two scenes later, the theater is absolutely quiet. You can hear people leaning forward to hear what's said. I don't know how he does it."

But Irwin's experience was in a new play. It's not unreasonable to wonder whether the shock of a work written 40 years ago will hold up, given how high the bar is set for something to be considered shocking today. To gauge the difference between then and now, consider that when the touring production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" came through Boston in 1963, the Roman Catholic Church influenced the city censor to demand that irreverent language, like references to "Jesus H. Christ," be axed.

The current revival marks the first time Boston audiences are seeing the show uncut. Albee has made no changes to the script or updated it. He says matter-of-factly that to do so would be adding a second author to the play. After all, he's hardly the same person he was then. Nor has director Anthony Page made anachronistic additions or imposed any clever modernist concepts on this revival.

But the cast agrees the story is hardly stuck in the 1960s. Masterworks like "Hamlet" and "A Doll's House" have survived because they tap not the manners of a time, but universal ideas and timeless struggles. "Virginia Woolf" is such a play. At its core, it's simply an exploration of a complex relationship.

"If you're going to take the trouble to write a play," Albee says, "you shouldn't do anything except tell the truth, and you shouldn't soften things to make it easier for people to take, or compromise for commercial reasons." He prefers "characters that are interested in saying what's on their minds," he says.

"I don't expect anything new to come out of it. It's sort of like a Brahms symphony - you heard it once, you liked it, you want to hear it again."

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