"Everyone's Fine With Virginia Woolf" is an Obie-award winning play by the Elevator Repair Service theater company, playing now at the Abrons Art Center until June 30th in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The play was written by Kate Scelsa and directed by John Collins. This production was noted by the New York Times as a highlight of the season.
The play is a parody of another play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” from 1962 written by Edward Albee. In that play, as in this one, two couples meet for after-party drinks. In both plays, the hosts start fighting in front of their guests, and exchange power dynamics between all four characters. These power dynamics mean at any given time one character might be the sexual predator versus another character’s prey, or one person might be a argumentative aggressor, as in yelling and screaming or sly put-downs, versus an unwitting, or put-upon victim. As in Albee’s play, the characters here are the hosting couple George and Martha (here, Vin Knight and Annie McNamara) and visitors Nick and Honey Sloane (Mike Iverson and Linsday Hockaday). Almost immediately, Nick, George, and Martha all announce their homosexual proclivities, and this builds an intrigue as to where Scelsa is going. And yes, there are twists, and twists, and twists. Thankfully, Scelsa’s parody stays true as a comedy, and so heavy themes are subverted for teaching, and more importantly subverted for fun and entertainment.
Why Albee used Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) originally has to do with the pun in the author’s name, but also the way Woolf used gender roles as a way to talk about society. Thus, Albee’s pun was a way to ask, who is afraid of gender-dynamics and sexuality? I’ve seen two theatrical based on works originally written by Woolf that helped me here. The first was a film, “The Hours,” from 2002 starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman which meta-fiction based on three characters connected by Woolf’s book Mrs. Dalloway. In these three stories, including a vignette about Virginia Woolf, all three women are haunted by the conflicts of the Women’s Rights movements in the western world (here, the United States and England). All three characters were courageous about their gender at the risk of exposure and condemnation in their lives.
The second work based on Woolf was a play based on Woolf’s Orlando, which was performed by the Avant Barde theater company in Washington, DC in their 2015 Spring season. That play took place throughout time, starting in the Middle Ages, and concerned the eponymous Orlando, and over the course of the events in the play, Orlando switched genders as a way to talk about the liberation women have experienced throughout time. The point was the liberation of Orlando over the course of time wasn’t separate from the freedom that courtiers and serfs built over time. What seems in summary like the play should have been a fantastical or science-fiction premise, in the play the wild twists and turns seemed logical and reasonable.
In a word, Woolf used gender-switching as social criticism. This means bridging the gap between microcosm of everyday life, and the macrocosm of greater political social norms, because in the 1950’s men enjoyed abilities of choosing careers, how to use their bodies, and generally what to do. This political idealism is terrifying for a few reasons. For one, it’s unknown to some extent, and unkonwn is a key ingredient for fear. Secondly, these ventures buck the status quo, and necessarily means leaving behind the traditions and practices that make up the status quo. In Albee’s play, that meant his characters were so fantasy-prone as to be tragic, in Scelsa’s play, this is played for laughs – because women’s liberation is supposed to have happened.
Therefore, Scelsa’s central theme is, “loosen up!” This play is a series of jokes in so many different shapes and sizes that this theme is unmistakable. Where George and Martha in Albee’s play are at the whims of identity and gender, because they were constantly repressing their emotions, Scelsa’s version shows these characters humorously okay with their sexuality. George is a gay husband? Great. Martha wants to swing? Great. Well, Martha already did it? All of the characters shrug and everyone’s fine. If anything, Scelsa’s main antagonist in this play is Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century, who appears in monologues and conversation throughout the play. Williams wrote dramas about Southern Bells in anachronistic settings. His plays often milked these Southern Bells for their tragic idealism in changing circumstances. Scelsa uses Williams’ “Streetcar Named Desire,” and a second play, “The Glass Menagerie,” because both plays used these Southern Bell characters as “shrew” women who were uptight when they decried sexism and social injustices. Where Virginia Woolf talked about political progress, Williams was angry that people weren’t nicer – without ever taking the next step and commenting on the wrongdoings of society-at-large. In “Streetcar,” this meant the villain of the play Stanley commits rape as a representation of a villain in and of himself, and not as a greater representation of society. In “Menagerie,” Williams made the mother character the villain because of her expectations, and again did not make the conclusion that there was anything that society did to make her a villain.
Scelsa’s use of Virginia Woolf themes and her attack on the seriousness of Williams means lampooning both in joke after joke. Seclesa is hoping with her gambit to make the audience laugh at the over-simplistic expectations of popular culture and she’s hoping to teach the audience to laugh at these problems of gender and sexual orientation in their own lives.
“Everyone’s Fine With Virginia Woolf,” is both reasonable and morally ambiguous, here. It’s the hope of artists and critics that art as a political weapon expands past the limits of being art; that when a viewer of a painting stops looking at the painting, she will keep the lessons of the painting with her, when she carries on in her actions outside of the painting. Scelsa is reasonable because Wool was effective in conveying the “ask,” by urging her readers to agitate for realistic changes. When a woman asks to vote or to earn equal pay, these agitations absolutely should be fine, as the play’s title says. When Scelsa lampoons Williams, the jokes hit, and it’s morally ambiguous, because Williams’ problems are more deep-seated. His characters are to blame for their failures because he wrote them that way. Scelsa kills off George for his misogyny, and all of the characters shrug. It’s left to the audience to figure out the ambiguity here. This awkwardness is effective because the audience must think for itself.
“Everyone’s Fine With Virigina Woolf,” has to do with themes of feminism and how they have changed from when Albee originally wrote his play. In this way, Sclesa’s play does what many top tier pop culture movies have attempted to say without doing the actual work of considering what the consequences of gender-switching would actually mean. In 2018’s Ocean’s 8, the characters of the George Clooney version from 2001 were merely exchanged for a heist comedy. The same goes for 2016’s Ghostbusters. These characters substituted women without asking why gender needs to be considered at all, and in this way both movies miss out on their reason for being created. Scelsa’s play is a remake in the best sense, because she succeeds where these movies failed.