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A Delicate Balance (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize shamefully denied Edward Albee for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Spiky, stilted and maybe maddening to many, it was probably the most abstruse honoree at that point in the award’s history. Albee managed the difficult feat of being muskily dated and vanguardishly visionary at the same time. Nearly a half century later, it has grown inordinately antique yet perhaps more scathingly pertinent than ever. It’s rarely revived, and this manicured yet powerful mounting makes a splendid case for its place in the canon of American theater.
Living in the wealthy, WASPy suburbs, aging Tobias (David Selby of Dark Shadows) and his wife Agnes (Susan Sullivan of Castle) — the two previously played a married couple on Falcon Crest — live a coddled existence within codified gender roles, centered around the country club and a generically vague business, avatars of Establishment probity. Tobias deferentially avoids unnecessary confrontation, while agonizing over ethics and propriety. The educated and preternaturally well-spoken Agnes has dedicated her talents to diligent home-making, and while assertive to the point of aggression, remains with painstaking correctness the complaisant spouse. One breathtaking fascination of A Delicate Balance at this remove is how precise a snapshot it captures of that historic moment bare months before the rising consciousness of the Women’s Movement took hold of suburban intellectuals and so, soon after, the cultural zeitgeist.
Yet this model household, unsurprisingly for a modern audience, is utterly ridden with intractable dysfunction. Since the death of their young son, the couple’s intimacy has been limited to comfortably supportive habitual courtesy and lowered expectations. Their daughter Julia (Deborah Puette) at 36 is coming home in anticipation of her fourth divorce. Agnes’ younger sister Claire (O-Lan Jones), an acerbic alcoholic, lives in their home, needling everyone with her acuity for hypocrisy and tolerating it in no one save herself. And the couple’s lifelong best friends, Harry (Mark Costello) and Edna (Lily Knight), show up unannounced at the door this night, seeking shelter from an unnameable existenial terror that has driven them out of their own home. Tobias cannot turn them out, and Agnes improvises by ensconcing them in Julia’s bedroom just as she is about to return to regress into her repeated pattern.
People no longer talk the way they do in this play: perhaps they never did, except in drawing-room dramas, but even onstage convention was never as distilled and rarefied as this. Albee deploys a savage ear, and there is a conscious pomposity to everyone’s highly intelligent badinage that smacks of snarky parody not merely of grandiloquent upper-crust formality but also of high-art serious staginess, sometimes to the strain of absurdity. Albee remains ever the modernist, no matter what high-falutin’ drag he assumes. This makes the dialogue both off-putting and fascinating to hear, and that he sustains the conceit throughout would be dazzling were it not also deeply affected.
Yet none of this compromises how affecting the anomie and desperation of everyone is conveyed in its individual variety, because for all his ferocity and innovation, Albee nevertheless remains a compassionate observer and a sincere sympathizer. He criticizes without mercy yet still without judgment, partly because the dilemmas he poses can be diagnosed far more readily than resolved. The play’s sustained dissection of what society demanded of its men and women inexorably leads to the conclusion that surrender to complacency obliterates life’s possibility of choices, that we are if anything more likely to be trapped by what we do not do than what we affirmatively decide. Fear of mistakes can be worse than mistakes themselves.
Fascinatingly, the play has also become visionary in many ways the author could hardly have perceived at the time: his invocation of Camus’ The Plague uncannily anticipates the AIDS epidemic, and many revolutions in perception that have become commonplace in the intervening decades, from a suggestion of the imminent irrelevance of gender to the common dread of not only societal norms but of an atomizing civilization and doomed planet.
Director Robin Larsen has helmed so many superlative local productions over the years (Blackbird, Four Places, Tryst, Pursued by Happiness, etc.) that it is no revelation that such enormous care has massaged this difficult text into a consistency that makes its thorniness accessible.
The company is exemplary: Sullivan in particular finds a stillness within the roiling Agnes that gives her a more human dimension than even Jessica Tandy or Katharine Hepburn brought to the role. The reedy Selby may seem to lack the gravitas that collapses under the weight of internal contradiction, but Tobias has always affected a passivity that Selby deftly embodies: it makes the character arc perhaps less dramatic yet more movingly plausible. With her acid tongue, Claire has always stolen the show with her zingers, and while the role seems less original and fresh than when it was first written, Jones projects absolute conviction that she understands the destructive place from which this woman dwells.
Venue: The Odyssey Theatre, West Los Angeles (runs through June 15)
Cast: David Selby, Susan Sullivan, O-Lan Jones, Mark Costello, Deborah Puette, Lily Knight
Director: Robin Larsen
Playwright: Edward Albee
Set designer: Tom Buderwitz
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Sound designer: Christopher Moscatiello
Costume designer: Dianne K. Graebner
Producer: Ron Sossi
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