What do Tennessee Williams, slash fiction, and the comment sections of family-planning sites have in common? Well, they’re all widely discussed in Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, Kate Scelsa’s bitingly hilarious riff on Edward Albee’s 1962 classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Unlike Albee’s three-hour-long domestic drama, this one– staged by Elevator Repair Service at the Abrons Arts Center— is set in the present day and runs less than 90 minutes. Over the course of an evening, Martha (Annie McNamara) verbally— and, in one case literally—annihilates her flamboyant husband George (Vin Knight), and their guests: nerdy, repressed Nick (Mike Iveson) and his wife Honey (April Matthis), who has a penchant for deadpan humor.
Scelsa, who has been with ERS since 2002, is a multidisciplinary writer and performer whose beats are feminism and queerness (her YA novel Fans of The Impossible Life was an international hit). Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of her favorite plays. “I’ve had a relationship with this play since I was about 11 or 12,” she told B+B, listing the original book, the movie featuring Elizabeth Taylor and several stage productions among the versions she is familiar with. “I knew I was really fascinated by the character of Martha, and that she was this really over-the-top, amazing, outrageous female character.”
The battle between George and Martha, two equals, made the original a very feminist play. But upon rereading it, Scelsa realized she forgot its very underwhelming and somewhat disappointing ending: Martha is defeated by the idea of motherhood, and by the fact that she was unable to become a mother. “I had completely blocked that out,” Scelsa recalled. “All [Albee] had created, this really outrageous female character…then he almost punished her for being too much, instead of glorious.”
She approached Albee’s classic during the fateful 2016 presidential election. During a conversation with a friend, she reflected on the way we perceive women in positions of power, namely what we expect from them and what we allow them to be. “There was a kind of tragic narrative around Hillary, around how she was never quite enough for anyone; she was too understated, too feminine, not feminine enough,” Scelsa said. “I felt like this woman is just cursed, she can’t be allowed to exist as her true self.”
While Scelsa doesn’t want the play to be too in your face with the #metoo narrative, she still sees it as fitting in the current cultural conversation. “What I am hoping is that the boldness of the play, and the way we are letting Martha have have her victory is exciting in light of the current cultural conversation, and the way we’re looking at gender equality.”
Scelsa explores queerness through the male characters. She decided to turn Martha’s husband George, originally a mediocre history professor, into a Tennessee Williams scholar. Both Williams and Albee were gay playwrights who were both interested in strong but ultimately tragic female characters. “They’re channeling a part of themselves into these outrageous female characters as gay men in the period of time they lived in, [and] they then had to almost punish that part of themselves,” Scelsa said. “I was really interested in that relationship to fiction, to working some of your own stuff out about gender, about sexuality, into fiction.”
Slash fiction– a form of fan fiction that imagines homosexuality between characters– is another element of Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf, and serves as absurdist comic relief from the psychologically charged discussions at the dinner party. Nick, Honey’s husband, indulges in writing slash fiction between Emmett the vampire and Jacob the werewolf, both characters of Twilight, and their tryst results in an mpreg, or male pregnancy. Her inspiration came after stumbling upon slash fiction between the two aforementioned characters—unfortunately, it was just a hysterical pregnancy. “What does that mean, as a metaphor, to have this baby that does not exist?” Scelsa asked herself, noting that, in Albee’s original, both women deal with the non-existence of children, albeit in a serious way.
When Scelsa is not belaboring over her second YA novel—which touches on queer-feminist social media activism and reality tv— or a potential polyandric adaptation of Sister Wives, she is a “part-time witch.” She approached occultism through the tarot, and, to this day, she equates creativity with magic(k?). “Occultism is trendy and I kind of love it. The more people lean into an idea about creativity as magic, and its possibility to be a beautiful tool in your life, the more I just fall in love with all of this,” she told us. “For me, just calling yourself witch is a pretty powerful thing, considering the history of that word: I get a lot of delight just out of using that word. It feels that I am making trouble in a way that is very satisfying.”
“Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf” runs through June 30 at Abrons Arts Center.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the names of Mike Iveson and Elevator Repair Service.