Friday, June 1, 2007 | “What a dump.”

The famous line uttered by Bette Davis is also one of the first lines from Edward Albee’s scintillating drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which premiered on Broadway in 1962; it seems fairly innocent.

But to those who know the play, or have seen the famous film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, know otherwise. Those three words are the ignition that sets fire to the dialogue between George and Martha, slowly unleashing their fury and emotion like fire spreading up a drapery. And the audience had better prepare themselves for the next three intense hours.

A history professor at a university, George is married to Martha, who happens to be the university president’s daughter. They have just stumbled home from a faculty party and have invited a new professor and his wife over for a nightcap. At 2 a.m.

The new professor Nick and his mousey wife Honey enter the scene just as Martha hurls a profanity at George. The guests are shocked, but Martha gets everyone to settle down with a drink and the “games” begin. The long night turns into a grotesque display of verbal attacks on each other that George gives titles to like “Humiliate the Host” or “Get the Guests.”

Of course the guests are horrified, but they are also titillated; fascinated. Plus, they’ve been drinking for hours — and don’t forget Martha’s father is university president — so they stick around for more abuse.

Frankly, in the film version the roles of George and Martha don’t seem much of a stretch for Taylor and Burton with their marital problems and alcohol troubles. So I was interested to see different actors’ representations of the characters. In the first act, Martha (Monique Fowler) relentlessly jabs at George, cutting him down in front of the guests.

Whereas Taylor plays a wild-eyed drunk, Fowler’s Martha remains shrewd, with a refined intensity. She may be drunk but she can hold her liquor and stay in control when she wants to. She’s incensed that George has never risen to head up the history department and considers him a failure and a disappointment to both herself and her father.

James Sutorius’ superb portrayal of George seems at first a victim of an alcoholic, domineering wife. He looks old, tired, depressed. Soon it’s clear he’s, at the very least, an even match for Martha. Stealthily he begins to exhibit his dark wit and razor-sharp intelligence. He evades Martha’s attacks and fights back at the same time. He’s disgusted with her vices, her shamelessness. For all her taunting, there’s a hint that Martha respects George’s skillful, cryptic attacks; that at one time they were a happier couple.

Watching them go at it is like watching a train wreck; I found myself holding my breath during their raw exchanges.

During all of this, George and Martha use Honey (Nisi Sturgis) and Nick (Scott Ferrara) as pawns to create jealousy or to treat as confidantes. As the alcohol flows, we see appearances are not always as they seem; handsome Nick has a plan for eventual department head status that involves sleeping with faculty wives and mousey Honey has a secret penchant for brandy. These two characters have just as much depth as George and Martha. You can see it when Ferrara simmers to a boil and backs down again in response to Sutorius’ dripping-with-sarcasm monologues. Or when Sturgis’ Honey realizes her husband has told one too many of her secrets.

Chemistry surges powerfully between all four actors. When sultry Martha tries to seduce the charming, handsome Nick; Fowler and Sturgis are electric together. When Martha belittles George to the point of breakdown, he first crumples and then explodes, sending sparks across the room.

Staged in the intimate Cassius Carter Centre Stage, “Woolf” is the first of a new Old Globe series, “Classics Up Close.” And what a classic to start with! “Woolf” at close range gives you the feeling of watching family members fight from the stairway banister; you’re fraught with nervousness and anxiety, but, at the same time, mesmerized.

Set inside George and Martha’s house, scenic design by Alan Muraoka and lighting by Chris Rynne mesh nicely to evoke the stately but worn furnishings of university faculty housing. Richard Seer’s direction paces everything nicely; winding tension tighter and tighter. It’s like that game where you pull a wooden block from a block tower, one after the other, trying to keep the tower standing.

Albee’s play was considered cutting-edge at its premiere and remains, to this day, an innovative piece of work. It was considered for a Pulitzer Prize but was withdrawn for (reportedly) objectionable language, causing a scandal on the Pulitzer committee. Albee’s recurring themes of abandonment, disappointment and fear are found in much of his work. He also focused on the notion of paying attention to your life; actively living it rather than clinging to illusions or denial. It’s gritty and it’s psychologically exhausting but its beauty is that it doesn’t hide life’s ugly truths. This production fills that tall order and then some.

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