As political scientist Wallace Stanley Sayre famously noted, academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so low. He might as well have been speaking about marriage, where the bitterest feuds often spring from the most trivial matters.
In his 1962 classic, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Edward Albee plays both fronts, peeling back the polite veneer of professorial life to expose the shame and rage seething just beneath the surface of a marriage.
As played by Los Altos Stage Company under the direction of Virginia Drake, Martha (Kristin Brownstone) and George (Tom Gough) are masters of manipulation: two people bound together in marital misery and seemingly intent on mutual destruction.
She's the daughter of the college president: a bright, headstrong woman at odds with the domestic expectations of 1960s New England who finds that neither her life nor her husband have measured up to her expectations. He's a history professor who lacks the administrative ambition others have hoped for him and finds his creative impulses spurned at every turn. And so, fueled by alcohol and frustrated ambition, they wield their disappointments like weapons, lashing out at each other in a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse.
Into the midst of this nuptial nightmare walk newlyweds Nick (Warren Wernick) and Honey (Sarah Benjamin), who soon find themselves ensnared. As the night of drinking and psychological sparring wears on, Nick and Honey's seemingly devoted union begins to show cracks of its own. Meanwhile, George and Martha engage in a torture ritual so practiced and skillful, it seems at times to be a form of mutually agreeable sadomasochism.
In moments, their banter borders on flirtation: "I swear," Martha quips, "If you existed, I'd divorce you." (Clearly, she's going nowhere.) Yet more often, their taunts are barbed and meant to damage.
To the degree that Albee's play exposes the human impulse to wound those who wound us, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is essentially a work of realism. Yet Albee -- and Drake -- play along the edge of the surreal, allowing George and Martha's cruelty to spiral into something truly monstrous.
Adding to the sense of growing panic is the play's structure: Three acts, each nearly an hour long, keep both the young visitors and the audience captive late into the night as George and Martha circle each other, snarling.
As Martha, Kristin Brownstone seems positively to relish this tormenting game; she's most convincing in her moments of brutal ingenuity, least believable when she crumples. Honey is her foil: a young woman as meek and unacquainted with her power as they come. She simpers and tipples and gasps and giggles (Benjamin gives the impression she's familiar with the effects of overindulgence in the brandy department), but there's never so much as a flash of anger or defiance, in stark contrast to her hostess.
Not even Gough's George isn't quite Martha's match when it comes to sheer manic domination, but she loves him, and he uses that fact to taunt her with a cunning blend of passive aggression and verbal abuse. As the night wears on and language begins to fail him, George turns to increasingly physical violence: a mean joke with a toy rifle, a threat with a smashed bottle, an attempted strangulation. Like his character, Gough takes some time to warm up for the fight, and even then seems more comfortable with words than with actions.
As played by Wernick, young biology professor Nick is all slicked-back hair, earnestness and Adam's apple. He wavers between moral righteousness and ambitions of his own, both professional and sexual. Martha, who has long since slipped into something more comfortable, is happy to play the object of his desire, provided it causes George pain.
Speaking of sex, the absence of offspring spells doom of different kinds to each couple; in one instance, the longing for a child becomes an elaborate and almost tender fantasy, as well as the source of deep despair.
Scenic designer Ron Gasparinetti and prop designer Ting Na Wang conjure a convincing sitting room circa 1960, complete with turntable and rolling bar cart. Downstage right is the library, where an unexplained cascade of books litters the floor -- the result of another night's skirmish, perhaps, or simply a metaphor for the futility of scholarship in the face of such dysfunction.
By daybreak, George and Martha seem to have broken each other, at least for this round, and though Nick and Honey can finally extricate themselves, it's clear they've been broken, too.
Why live through three hours of such horror? For some, there may be no reason at all. Others will find Los Altos Stage's impressive production a bracing reminder of the dark side of marriage: a cautionary tale that bears retelling.
What: Los Altos Stage Company's "Whos' Afraid of Virginia Woolf"
Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos
When: Through May 3: Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.
Info: Go to losaltosstage.org or call 650-941-0551.