New York City Theater
"A Delicate Balance"
How ironic. The latest revival of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize drama, “A Delicate Balance,” is unbalanced. Not that the actors aren’t working hard; it’s that they don’t all seem on the same page. Further, unfair as it may seem, this starry revival is way below par when compared to the original production (Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Marian Seldes) or the smashing revival (Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, Elaine Stritch.)
Albee’s incisive work about existential dread, power, language, the limits of friendship and responsibility, as well as the sterility of marriages, is nothing if not a grabber. Starting as something out of a drawing-room comedy with bits of high-toned conversation sandwiched in between bouts of liquor and cigars, it soon devolves into an absurdist mystery.
Wealthy Agnes and Tobias are having a civilized talk -- well, she’s doing most of the talking – until interrupted by her alcoholic sister, Claire. Even then, faces don’t crack. At all costs, the WASP façade must be maintained despite talk of madness and death.
Foreshadowed is the arrival of neighbors and dearest friends, Harry and Edna. What seems like just a visit turns into a nightmare when Harry and Edna announce they’ve come to stay, hoping to escape some unknown terror (madness? death?), some diminution of themselves that they felt when at home. Suddenly, the veil is torn, the politesse is shattered and all are put to the test.
Another irritant is the arrival of married daughter Julia, on the rebound from what may turn into her fourth divorce. Harry and Edna soon take over, displacing Julia from her room, speaking unwanted truths to their hosts. As in his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Albee takes his characters through a Walpurgisnacht of loss and regret. “Time happens, I suppose,” says Agnes. “Everything becomes too late, finally.”
In this rendering, however, the politesse has little undercurrent. These people are dead souls. “You want love so badly,” says Claire to Tobias, “but you hate and you notice . . . that you’re more like an animal every day,” prompting Tobias’s famous speech about the cat who no longer loved his neglectful master. That failure parallels the corruption of love endemic to these people.
It’s a beautifully written work about commitment and isolation that needs tension it doesn’t fully get here, except for Clare Higgins’ calculating Edna, Bob Balaban’s steadfast Harry and, especially in the last act, John Lithgow’s beset Tobias. The others don’t fare as well. Glenn Close’s Agnes is all surface brittle, Martha Plimpton’s Julia is banshee-like and that fine actress, Lindsay Duncan, is a clownish Claire.
Director Pam MacKinnon, a Tony winner for her revival of “Virginia Woolf,” hasn’t woven the play’s strands together. Instead of an evening of mountains and chasms, we get a flat prairie.
--David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 20, 2014