By Stanford Friedman

Certain productions come with expectations. In the past, the experimental theater troupe Elevator Repair Service has given us a 2 hour 40 minute version of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Gatz, an eight hour retelling of The Great Gatsby. So, my pajamas were packed for their latest offering, a spoof of Edward Albee’s normally three hour long masterwork, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Well, surprise. Instead of an epic comeuppance, the playwright and ERS mainstay Kate Scelsa has conjured a rapid-fire 75 minute farce complete with sight gags, slamming doors, and slamming drinks. The more you know about the original, the more you’re likely to appreciate this effort. It’s an odd homage, as well as a deep dive into gender studies, that somehow ends up being more a dissection of Tennessee Williams than of Albee, and which proves overly complicated in its attempts to liberate its female protagonist amid a barrage of cultural and literary shout-outs.   

Certain characters come with expectations. Albee’s George and Martha are two of theatre’s greatest codependent messes. Having been together for decades, this history professor and this college president’s daughter excel at pushing each other’s buttons, drunkenly clawing each other apart even while desperate for each other’s company.  Playing with the power dynamic, Ms. Scelsa leaves out the pull and focuses on the push. Her George (Vin Knight) is a Tennessee Williams scholar with a penchant for swan diving into monologues from Williams’s tragic women characters. He channels Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire and Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, when not gulping down the gin. He is neither strong enough to strangle his wife, nor willful enough to keep hold of his tenured job. Martha (Annie McNamara) has no problem doing away with George, and freeing herself from their imaginary baby (which was the ticking time bomb in Albee’s version). “When [George] killed off my fictional baby it was actually super liberating. Do you know how much upkeep a fictional baby requires?” Later, she will also jab Albee and Williams, “When gay male writers use children as a metaphor they are transparently talking about the tenuousness of their own egos.” With all the bashing going on, there is little of the needed emotional tension between the two actors. Ms. McNamara’s energy seems too youthful for the mature Martha and her aggressiveness unlayered. Mr. Knight meanwhile struggles to get a grip on a character that has many different, slippery handles.

As in the original, George and Martha’s houseguests for the evening are the aspiring college professor, Nick (Mike Iveson, game for anything), and his out of sorts wife, Honey (an appropriately dazed and confused April Matthis). Here, Nick is also an author of slash fiction, which he defines as “fan fiction where you make everyone gay even if they’re not.” In his writing he imagines himself pregnant and suffers through it more than Honey does with her hysterical pregnancy. The two couples go round and round, throwing off allusions, familiar and obscure, from Samuel Beckett, Ibsen, Nabokov, Woody Allen and Will & Grace, to name a few. That the script has four pages of handy footnotes explaining all the references, for copyright matters, is perhaps a reason that this work is more effective on the page than on the stage. Another reason would be the mental exercise which is the third act. It goes straight to Hell; I mean literally. Plus, there’s a vampire involved (Lindsay Hockaday). Still, director John Collins and scenic designer Louisa Thompson supply some visual yuks, one involving a coat rack that is painted on the backdrop, but treated by Martha as it were three dimensional. If only her marital hang-ups could be so easily solved.

Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf – By Kate Scelsa; Directed by John Collins.

WITH: Lindsay Hockaday (Carmilla), Mike Iveson (Nick), Vin Knight (George), April Matthis (Honey) and Annie McNamara (Martha).

Stage Manager Maurina Lioce, Set Designer Louisa Thompson, Costume Designer Kaye Voyce, Lighting Designer Ryan Seelig, Sound Designer Ben Williams. Elevator Repair Service  (Artistic Director, John Collins, Producing Director, Ariana Smart Truman) at The Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St, 866-811-4111, Through June 30. Running time: 75 minutes.