By MARK BLANKENSHIP
On the surface, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems like a strange match for set designer Todd Rosenthal.
Edward Albee's classic play, now on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, follows George and Martha, a fractious couple at a New England university. They endure their disappointing lives with elaborate games, attacking each other with savage wit or spinning stories about a fictional son. On the night we meet them, they host an unsuspecting young professor and his wife, sucking them into their cruelty until everyone breaks down.
As fiery as it is, though, the play is essentially realistic, set entirely in George and Martha's living room. For Rosenthal, whose Broadway designs include the suggestive sets for August: Osage County and The Motherf**ker With the Hat, that can be a turn-off.
"When I'm hired to design realistic interiors, oftentimes I turn them down because I'm really not interested," he says. "How do I get an 'in' into that? How do I give that interior a very robust point of view without going overboard and doing something that's abstract? I think Edward would not have been accepting of a design that was too abstracted."
Of course, Albee also created the talking lizards in Seascape and the malevolent archetypes in The Play About the Baby, and Rosenthal sees that symbolic energy in Virginia Woolf. "The play works on so many different levels," he says. "I found that we could instill in this interior a more sophisticated sensibility. I thought that an interior for this play could accommodate metaphor and some other kind of thinking beyond just naturalism."
To that end, Rosenthal's set tells a story: "The idea is that the house is dying in a way. The color's being sapped out of it, but at some point, it was a really beautiful place to live."
In other words, the space itself reflects the spiritual cost of George and Martha's marriage. The chairs are lovely, but the bottoms sag down. There's elegant molding near the ceiling, but part of it is falling away. The walls are high, but they're rotting with water stains.
And then there are books. Hundreds of them, spilling off every surface like rubble after an explosion. Rosenthal says, "The idea behind all those books: I really wanted this to be, 'Well, Martha bought the house. Obviously, she's the one with the money.' But George [who's a history professor] is marking his territory. He's trying to assert himself on that space." The idea extends to the fireplace, which is packed like a bookshelf. "For George, I thought that knowledge was more important than warmth," Rosenthal says.
He's been refining his design since 2010, when this production opened at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. (It also played last year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.) In many ways, he feels the Broadway version tells the clearest, strongest story.
The Booth Theatre's stage, for instance, is framed by a proscenium, so that we see the entire production inside a "box." Rosenthal says, "We had to make quite a few changes to the set to make it work [on that type of stage], because before it was coming from essentially a thrust stage. Enclosing the space and having the ceiling extend over the [playing] space really helps. It makes the space tighter and more combustible. We also got rid of excess floor. I just thought we had too much space, and I wanted these people to be right next to each other, not able to get away from each other."
He adds, "We also totally repainted the set, just to make it a little more worn and gray it out. The color is getting sucked out. It's evocative of a more prosperous time, but it's slowly dying."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo of the set model provided by the production