All couples play dangerous emotional games, but most of us are like kids with a ball and jacks compared to George and Martha.
The middle-aged couple at the heart of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, now at The Gladstone in a revival whose reach exceeds its grasp, has honed to an art the pastime of taunting, flaying, almost-but-not-quite-mortally wounding each other with words.
To watch them in full flight late one booze-fueled night after returning from a university party – George (Paul Rainville) is a career-stalled professor of history, Martha (Rachel Eugster) the disappointed daughter of the university president — is at once tragic and funny, familiar and foreign, mesmerizing and sickening.
Honey and Nick, the young faculty couple invited back to George and Martha’s for post-party drinks, don’t quite know what to make of these long-time inhabitants of the optimistically named town New Carthage.
Honey (Grace Gordon), annoyingly awkward and none-too-swift, is clearly out of her depth when George and Martha slip into their vicious hammer and tongs routine.
Nick (Cory Thibert), a new, ambitious teacher in the biology department and initially eager to maintain a sense of decorum, is equally flummoxed.
But there’s no stopping George and Martha. Embittered, frustrated and well-armed after years of observing each others’ vulnerabilities, they clash at every opportunity as the early morning hours stumble by and they slip ever closer to unveiling the closely guarded secret about the son who is apparently turning 21 years old.
Rainville’s fluidly drawn George is – this may not be quite le mot juste – a pleasure to watch. Already weary at 46, he’d like to withdraw from the marital battleground but can’t resist rising to his wife’s barbs (“I swear if you existed I’d divorce you,” she says disgustedly near the top of the show).
Nor can he resist falling on the fresh meat of Nick and Honey. He goads them; sets verbal traps that Nick, arrogant and shouldered with his own marital issues, steps blindly into; tells Honey, who gets disastrously looped on brandy, “Drink away. You’ll find you need it as the years go by.”
As Martha, Eugster is not Rainville’s equal. She has her lines down cold but can’t summon the emotional gradations they demand. Consequently, Martha, six years older than George and vexed that he’s “in” as opposed to “being” the history department, too often spits out words woodenly and never quite convinces us that she’s an equal in this dysfunctional but deeply entangled partnership.
Gordon and Thibert are also more limited than Rainville, although Thibert’s Nick hits his stride in the funny cut and thrust with George that marks the opening of Act Two.
Despite the unbalanced cast, director Ian Farthing keeps the three-act show set in a dark-hued living room that feels increasingly like a carnage-filled cage zipping along at a lively place. Just why the actors wear present-day clothing and why props include a modern remote control for the stereo when there’s also mention of a telegram being delivered in 1960s fashion is uncertain.
What is certain is that George and Martha, whose continual warring includes a peculiar affection for each other, have turned contempt into a kind of mutual support system that they can no more leave than they can abandon who they are.
As Martha says, “George and Martha: sad, sad, sad.”
Continues until April 16. Tickets: Box office, 613-233-4523, thegladstone.cA
First published in the Ottawa Citizen, April 8, 2016