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The plentiful alcohol is served neat but there’s no shortage of ice on the stage in Pam MacKinnon’s blistering production of A Delicate Balance. Edward Albee’s 1966 play, his first of three Pulitzer winners, has aged magnificently. In this deluxe revival, an exemplary cast headed by Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Lindsay Duncan takes its cue from the title, revealing the drama’s psychological complexity with exacting measures of wit, cruelty and contagious fear.
For longtime New York theatergoers, the production has to stand against formidable predecessors. The Broadway premiere starred Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn as upper-crust WASP country-clubbers Agnes and Tobias, Marian Seldes as their serial divorcee daughter Julia, and Rosemary Murphy as Agnes’ antagonistic younger sister Claire. The play returned in a Tony-winning 1996 revival that starred Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, Mary Beth Hurt and Elaine Stritch in one of her signature dramatic roles. In between, there was a 1973 American Film Theatre version directed by Tony Richardson, which starred Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick and Kate Reid. That’s a lot of illustrious theatrical history.
But whether audiences are encountering A Delicate Balance for the first time or for reappraisal, watching the six supremely accomplished actors in this cast bite into their roles is thrilling.
What impresses arguably even more than the performances, however, is the structural brilliance of Albee’s writing. He maps out a picture of smug upper middle-class complacency and then mercilessly confronts his characters with the depths of their denial, in action that unfolds from Friday night through Sunday morning.
His first act is a caustic drawing-room comedy, funny as hell and just as nasty. Act II is like an unsettling metaphysical home-invasion thriller, in which the characters navigate their way around a surreal threat. Act III is the chilly reckoning with loss and irreversible stasis, which brings clarity and a return to order for most, but harrowing resignation for Tobias. Albee has frequently chosen the terrain of home, marriage, family and friendship, and he dissects those institutions here with surgical precision. There’s not an extraneous word or gesture in the entire play.
Santo Loquasto’s set (“the living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house,” per the stage directions) is a model of stifling tastefulness and a perfect illustration of the careful control that rules the lives of Agnes (Close) and Tobias (Lithgow).
Whether sitting sphinx-like on the sofa or gliding up and down the stairs in costumer Ann Roth’s regal at-home attire, Close’s Agnes is all glacial poise, with articulate language to match. She rarely raises her voice above a genteel coo, even when speculating almost wistfully about the prospect of a retreat into madness. A man of considerable means acquired through family wealth and some unidentified business, Tobias relishes his passivity, maintaining his distance by studying the newspaper or busying himself at the bar.
“There are no mountains in my life… nor chasms,” observes Agnes to her husband, with a customary half-smile. “It is a rolling, pleasant land… verdant, my darling, thank you.” “We do what we can,” he replies, which might be Tobias’ motto.
Agnes is the self-described fulcrum of the household. Her smooth surfaces barely ripple even while revisiting the death of her son or her sexuality, or when subjected to the worst provocations of her dipsomaniac sister Claire.
In Duncan’s wonderfully sly performance, she makes it Claire’s gleeful mission to be a disruptive force. Distinguishing herself from the pack of pitiful believers she met during her sole trip to AA, she says, “They were sick, and I was merely… willful.” Albee drops in tantalizing hints that the sisters’ mutual dislike may have more concrete causes than a mere clash of personalities.
The third woman in the house, who completes the collective rebuke of Tobias’ impotence, is Julia (Martha Plimpton). Returning home at 36 from her fourth broken marriage, she expects to reclaim the role of the petulant adolescent. But her childhood bedroom is otherwise occupied.
The interlopers are Tobias’ best friend Harry (Bob Balaban) and his wife Edna (Clare Higgins). They turn up uninvited, explaining that they were sitting home alone and suddenly became frightened. “I was wondering when it would begin… when it would start,” says Claire with a little chuckle once the shaken visitors have been packed off to bed. As Agnes notes, her sister’s name is not without significance, and Claire’s unsparing lucidity often heightens the discomfort.
The existential fear brought by Harry and Edna infects the household, but the rules of friendship dictate that neither Agnes nor Tobias can question their guests’ reasons, let alone deny them a welcome. Only Claire identifies their unstated needs: “Succor. Comfort. Warmth.” But as Harry and Edna start asserting their right to be there, Agnes insists that Tobias shake off his inaction and take a stand.
How fitting that Close and Duncan, both of whom famously played the icy Marquise de Merteuil on screen and stage respectively in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, should now be at each other’s throats with such delicious venom. While Close had a few minor line flubs during the first press performance, nothing could intrude on the absolute authority of her characterization or the frosty command of her voice. Duncan is equally magnetic: Claire is the indecorous flipside of Agnes’ aggressive civility, and Duncan pushes her behavior to the brink of anarchy. But she also reveals a certain dependence on the status quo, balanced with the subversive pleasure she takes in its endangerment.
Despite his nominal position as patriarch, Tobias is a weaker specimen than either his wife or sister-in-law, and the key choices of his adult life have been about insulating himself from the truth. His tumble down the treacherous well of self-knowledge makes him the most affecting character, and Lithgow’s performance is tremendous as Tobias releases years of pent-up anguish. “It’s too late, or something,” he says in a moment of mild confusion that gradually acquires grim finality. That inconsolable realization is what makes his wake-up call from Agnes so cutting. And when he reaches out to Harry for refuge from the hollowness his friend has exposed, Tobias’ despair is devastating.
There are piercing moments of pathos in all the performances. Plimpton makes Julia sulky, selfish and demanding, but also a panicked child threatened with the removal of her security blanket. Her dismay when Harry usurps her father’s job of fixing drinks is oddly touching. Balaban’s Harry seems the more benign of the intruders, but reveals precisely the kind of cold pragmatism that Tobias lacks. And Higgins gives Edna, first seen stunned and blubbering, a sinister sense of purpose. It’s as if, having faced her demons, she’s indignant that others might continue to ignore theirs.
MacKinnon did revelatory work on the 2012 revival of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, shifting the upper hand from Martha, traditionally the indomitable harridan, to her underachieving husband George. There’s no such reversal of the inbuilt gender roles here, but no shortage of evidence that A Delicate Balance stands among the playwright’s finest work. The director’s blocking is impeccable, firmly delineating both the reaffirmations of power and the challenges to it. And Brian MacDevitt’s lighting has just the right suggestion of stylized theatricality to mirror the characters’ rejection of reality.
Both harsh and heartwrenching, this is a needling play that’s of its time and yet still surging with post-modern vitality. Its dialogue and characters border on arch but are ineffably human. And while the milieu could hardly be more specific, the experience of staring down a spiritual and emotional void is disturbingly relatable.
Cast: Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan, Bob Balaban, Clare Higgins, Martha Plimpton
Director: Pam MacKinnon
Playwright: Edward Albee
Set designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Executive producers: Joey Parnes, Sue Wagner, John Johnson
Presented by Scott Rudin, Elizabeth I. McCann, Eli Bush, Roger Berlind, William Berlind, Jon B. Platt, Roy Furman, The Shubert Organization, Ruth Hendel, Scott M. Delman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Sonia Friedman Productions/Tulchin Bartner Productions, The Araca Group, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Catherine & Fred Adler, The David Merrick Arts Foundation
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