It was a head-turning, and possibly head-scratching, casting announcement: that Calista Flockhart and Zachary Quinto would play George and Martha in the Geffen Playhouse’s new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But it wasn’t until I was chatting with Quinto recently that it dawned on me why this casting felt different: It wasn’t just the idea of Ally McBeal and Spock, icons in their own right, taking on another pair of American icons. It was that this is the first major Virginia Woolf I know of with Gen-Xers in both senior roles, and that makes a lot of people—including myself, a Replacements-loving dad squarely in that benighted demographic—feel as old as Sesame Street or the moon landing.
We could point out that Quinto, who at 44 is just two years younger than the character of George is supposed to be (Martha is 52 in the play), is already older than Richard Burton was when he played the role on film (he was 40), or that the last three Georges on Broadway were 63 (Rupert Everett), 47 (Tracy Letts, himself technically an early Gen-Xer), and 55 (Bill Irwin), respectively. So yes, Quinto is on the young side for George. But as he has shown in a variety of stage roles, including Tom in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, Louis in the Signature Theatre revival of Angels in America, and Harold in The Boys in the Band on Broadway (and in a subsequent film version), he has both an old-soul gravity and a certain fearlessness about characters’ dark sides that make him an interesting choice for George.
I spoke to Quinto during tech rehearsal for the show. Directed by Gordon Greenberg, it opens tonight at the Geffen in Los Angeles and runs through May 22.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: This casting has gotten a lot of attention, I think mainly among folks, including myself, who’ve thought: Wait, are they old enough?
ZACHARY QUINTO: I felt the same way when it was offered to me. Gordon Greenberg, the director, and Calista have known each other for a very long time, and she had been wanting to get back onstage, and the plan for quite a long time was to come back with something like this. Gordon started talking to Matt Shakman at the Geffen, who I guess brought my name up; Matt and I had discussed my fervent desire to get back onstage myself. So it just was this confluence of fortuitous opportunities that led to them offering me this role.
And at first I was incredibly disoriented by it. I did have that moment of thinking of the guys who’ve played this in the past, even if they weren’t so much older than me—Richard Burton was younger than I am when he did the movie, but 40 in the 1960s was kind of like 55 now, especially when you lean into the bottle as much as he did. But there’s something about it, both from the perspective of age and also from the perspective of who we inherently are as people, Calista and myself—there’s something quite different about this. That’s part of what interested me.
With a role this iconic, how do you put all the previous Georges out of your mind and play it as something new?
Well, it’s the most behemoth thing I’ve ever done; there’s not much luxury to think about anything other than the text itself. I specifically didn’t take any other work starting at the beginning of 2022, because I knew we were going into rehearsal in March, and I knew that I would need a significant amount of time to memorize the piece. That in and of itself is the biggest challenge I’ve ever been confronted by. Memorizing in a vacuum also was really difficult—I just tried to learn it on my own, without any context or the marrying of the physical life of the character with the intellectual and emotional and psychological landscape of the piece, and that was really difficult. So honestly, there’s so much depth and richness in the play itself and in the text, and then in my own connections to this character, that I don’t really think about other people’s interpretations of it.
I saw the last two Broadway productions, with Amy Morton and Tracy Letts, and with Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin. But I think that every time you do this work, it is an alchemy of the people who come to it. Yes, it’s one of those pieces that is legend, and inherently carries with it the whispers and echoes of the people who have have plumbed these depths before. But not in any way that is prohibitive. I mean, there’s so much psychological complexity and circumstantial nuance to contend with, I don’t think you really have the time or luxury to consider anything other than what’s right in front of you. That’s certainly been my experience of it.
Can you tell me more about your personal connection to the role. Not to armchair psychoanalize you, but many of the characters I’ve seen you play—Tom in Glass Menagerie, Louis in Angels in America, and of course Spock—could all be emotionally reserved, even repressed men, cut off a little bit from others and their feelings. Do you see George in similar territory? What’s his connection to you?
Certainly his intellectual appetite and curiosity is something that really sparks for me. He’s such a voracious thinker, and a thinker on his feet; he’s constantly employing these intellectual acrobatics in order to gain the upper hand, particularly with Nick and certainly with Martha. So I love the dexterity that’s required to thread the needle of these sometimes disparate, but ultimately cohesive thoughts that he presents, and the theses that he pontificates about throughout the play; that’s really interesting to me. And then, on a deeper, more emotional level, I think all human beings, artists in particular, confront the idea of expectation versus circumstantial reality in the course of life. That’s a huge part of what George is contending with. A lot of it has to do with aging, the place he is in his life, what Nick represents to George in terms of ambition; those are things that I’ve been examining within myself. I think my own aging process, personally, is relatively integrated, and I feel really grateful for where I am in my life, but there are obviously colors and shades of, well, what does it mean when there’s a landscape that is formed rather than full of possibility? That’s really sort of the crux of who this character is. So I’m drawing on that stuff, and on other things on the emotional landscape that are probably better kept to myself. But there are a lot of things that resonate, because Albee was an unmitigated genius in terms of understanding humanity and psychology. Consider that he was in his 30s when he wrote this play. I think a lot of it came out of the disparity between who he felt he was and who his adoptive parents made him believe he was.
I’m always curious about how actors, especially ones who haven’t worked together before, create the sense of having been in a long-term relationship. Can you talk about how you and Calista have built George and Martha’s marriage?
We’ve discussed it actively in terms of the script itself. That’s part of the process around the table. And there are ways that it happens subtly, sometimes a little bit unconsciously. Sometimes things can be happening for me that she doesn’t necessarily need to know about— observations that I made or feelings that I have throughout the process that I can substitute that apply to different parts of how George feels about his wife, about how she makes him feel. There’s a lot of that stuff that’s happening on a deeper and less explicit level throughout a rehearsal process. But also, just getting to understand someone’s process, getting to understand someone as a person, what’s important to them, who they are. The process of working with Calista on that has been truly delightful. I find her very easy, very low-key, really about the work. Often one of us will say something, and the other one will respond like, “I was just thinking that same thing.” There’s kind of a unity in how we’re looking at these characters and the dynamics of their relationships.
The big question of this play, and not every production solves this, is: Why doesn’t someone just leave? Things are getting so intense among these two couples, most of us would probably check out as soon as possible. Sometimes it can feel like the fact that all the characters stick around makes it feel like it verges from realism into the theatre of the absurd.
You know, Albee was always very reluctant to classify this play as part of the absurdist theatre movement. He used to say, “Which theatre is the absurd one?” I think that’s kind of telling and insightful. But definitely, particularly as you get into the depths of a play, and into the third act, there’s a shift in tone to a certain extent—things do get heightened in a way that transcend a kind of living-room drama. I think that’s part of it.
The other thing that’s really important to consider is, the reason that this play has endured for as long as it has is because this night is different for everybody. George and Martha have a 23-year marriage, and have certainly sparred and confronted conflict together, but have never had an experience quite like this. And there are things that happen on this night that are triggered for various reasons, whether it’s the kind of drunk that Martha gets, the kind of person that Nick is—there’s an alchemy that exists in the quartet of these characters on this particular September night that leads to this escalation that might not have led to it if it was one night earlier, or one night later, or if there was one less drink at the party.
There are certainly reasons why Nick and Honey don’t leave. Honey becomes to a certain degree incapacitated; she’s literally passed out. And unless he’s gonna carry her home, Nick has to kind of allow for her to come back around in the course of that. And with the increasing lubricated interactions people are having, the more they drink, there begins to blossom something between Martha and Nick that he doesn’t necessarily want to walk away from without being able to explore. And at a certain point in the play, George becomes determined to prevail, and that becomes his engine. So I think there is a point of no return, beyond which George isn’t going anywhere until he feels like there is a resolution to this ultimate betrayal, this ultimate conflict, that they find themselves in the middle of, once Martha makes the decision to mention their son. For her, this is just unavoidable; she’s probably the most driven by her intoxication, and also by her desire to shake things up. She talks a lot about something having snapped this particular night at a party, and something changing, and you know that things will never be the same for her. I think that’s really true of everybody in the play.
One thing Tracy Letts really seemed to bring out in the role was a certain determination, a fierce will—it’s always there in the play, but it doesn’t always manifest quite the way it did with Tracy. I think a lot of that had to do with Amy Morton’s Martha, and the kind of resistance she put up. Not enough people talk about how great, and how much of a departure, her performance was, certainly equal to his.
That was such a beautifully calibrated duo. I think they had the interesting advantage of a long working and personal relationship, through their time in Chicago, collaborating on all their projects, which I’m sure was a welcome cornucopia of things to draw from that they could apply to the characters.
This is a kind of devil’s advocate question—I will personally turn up for a good production of this play any day, but I think some people are weary, or wary, of an emotionally draining, caustic drama like this, especially after coming through a pandemic. Can you imagine someone thinking, Do I really want to put myself through this brutal play again?
It’s an interesting point. But I think there’s something about the enduring nature of it as a classic American play—yes, it’s caustic, but it’s also hilarious and moving and deeply intelligent. It’s certainly challenging to audiences in certain ways, on psychological, intellectual, and emotional levels. And I think that’s partly what theatre serves to do, in any time, including coming out of a pandemic—to recognize where we’ve come from and where we’re going. There’s always ballast in these classic American plays, which I’ve been really fortunate to do a number of in my career onstage. I always love what we can get from revisiting and reexamining these texts at different places and from different points of view in our cultural and societal evolution. You know, you could say the same thing about certain films and television shows that are very dystopian—that we’re looking at something that is reflecting something of us back at ourselves.
Part of what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? examines is what happens when people anesthetize themselves to the depth of their feelings of despair, or regret, or longing, or lack of fulfillment—what happens when you kind of just bottle things up and push things down, and don’t give yourself an opportunity to really explore them or examine them in a constructive or emotionally responsible way. I think that’s true today. There are so many ways in which we anesthetize ourselves, through social media, screens and technology, through substances. I think it’s always a valuable human exploration. And I think it’s an exciting time to be looking at the darkness of that, in the hopes that it can generate some recognition that maybe it’s more valuable or important to lead to the light within ourselves and in our relationships with one another.
Where does theatre fit into your portfolio? Do you tell your representatives not to book you for any film or TV for certain periods?
I made a commitment in 2011, which is when I went back and did Angels in America at the Signature—that was the beginning of a declaration that my intention was to do theatre every other season. And I’ve been able to do that generally from that time. I did Angels, I did Glass Menagerie, I did this production at MCC, Snowfall, I was in The Boys in the Band. Then the pandemic came and disrupted my schedule. So this is my first play in about four years. I try to come back to the theatre as often as I can; it’s something that I feel sustains me, and I’m simply never happier than when I’m in the process of making theatre.
There have been days that I’ve been driving to the Geffen thinking, How on earth am I going to be able to do this? Just the magnitude of it. In addition to the fact that Albee gives George more lines than I’ve ever had to consider in my career, he also at the end gives him a significant portion of ecclesiastical Latin to say as well. So just when you reach a plateau, there’s another peak to summit. It’s kind of unfathomable. But there’s so much joy in it. I love the challenge. I love the the adrenaline of knowing that one week from tomorrow, we’re going to be doing this play for our first crowd of 500 people. Nothing ignites me like that thrill, so I come back to it as often as I can.
Creative credits for production photo: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? written by Edward Albee, directed by Gordon Greenberg, with scenic design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Alejo Vietti, lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, music and sound design by Lindsay Jones, fight direction by Steve Rankin, intimacy direction by Mia Schachter, dramaturgy by Sarah Rose Leonard, production stage manager: J. Jason Daunter, assistant stage managers: Kyrsten Goodrich and Kesia Ross, casting by Phyllis Schuringa
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