First Nighter: Albee's 'Delicate Balance' Not Entirely Balanced

Scrutinized closely, which it's easy to do during director Pam McKinnon's Delicate Balance revival, at the Golden, Tobias and Agnes are very much a George-Martha do-over.
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Edward Albee has often, if not always, written about educated people whose learning has devolved into cutting banter as the years have marched on. They've honed their intelligence in such a way that they can be sarcastic and cynical on an impressively erudite level. From time to time as they insult each other, they can also be resoundingly witty.

It's true of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962's non-Pulitzer Prize winner), and it's equally true of Tobias and Agnes in A Delicate Balance (1966's at-last-Pulitzer Prize winner).

Scrutinized closely, which it's easy to do during director Pam McKinnon's Delicate Balance revival, at the Golden, Tobias and Agnes are very much a George-Martha do-over. (McKinnon also directed the 2012 Virginia Woolf revival.) Tobias, like George, tends to be contained and passive until he isn't. Agnes, like Martha, is forever on the acid-dipped-irony attack.

More than that, both couples who seem to be holding on to their marriages resentfully, yet tenaciously, bear a strong resemblance to at-sword's-point pairs featured in later Albee works, such as The Play About the Baby. As Albee admirers size up these recurring figures, it may be that the thematically linked marrieds represent the playwright's compulsive need to trot out versions of the parents who adopted him--an urge that, it's increasingly appeared, won't and can't be sated.

Albee might dislike such an assessment, but there it is, all the same. It's difficult not to think, as shrinks are known to advise, that the time eventually comes when one does well to get over hatred of the mater and pater.

Watching yet again the same scorched marital bliss being worried may account for my reaction to A Delicate Balance this time around, when I have previously regarded it as especially persuasive.

In 1966, when Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronin, Rosemary Murphy, Marian Seldes, Carmen Matthews and Henderson Forsythe took on the roles, Albee's look at discontent among the privileged was still fresh. It was less fresh but still potent in 1996, when Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch assumed the main parts. (Stritch gave a superlative performance that should have landed her a Tony but didn't.)

Now, however, I find myself less tolerant of the nasty conversations Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow) carry on--amid the intermittent truce--between themselves or when Agnes's alcoholic in-residence sister Claire (Lindsay Duncan) lurches into the room or when daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton), separated from her fourth husband, returns home for not-to-be-granted solace.

Also less involving for me now are Agnes and Tobias's disagreements when best friends Edna (Clare Higgins) and Harry (Bob Balaban) drop in unannounced one night, confessing they've left their home as a result of a sudden and inexplicable shared terror.

(Partial digression: I was beginning to harbor reservations about Albee's drama when I saw a London revival at the Almeida in 2011 with Tim Pigott-Smith, Penelope Wilton and Imelda Staunton, but only now am I able to put my finger on what was bothering me.)

Significantly, the bone-deep fear that's gripped Edna and Harry remains the most intriguing aspect of A Delicate Balance. Curiously, though, while all the caustic and, sorry to note, repetitious palaver rasps along over the course of a charged weekend, Albee lets his interest in the unidentifiable force fade.

Of course, it's a manifestation of free-floating anxiety and doesn't ask to be resolved--indeed, mustn't be slickly resolved. Nevertheless, at the end of the first act (there are three acts with two intermissions), Claire makes a crack about Edna and Harry's predicament presaging something wicked their way coming. That's when Albee seems to promise more but then doesn't deliver.

To portray the bickering sextet inhabiting Santo Loquasto's stunning version of an upper-class house with drawing room and partially visible sunroom, MacKinnon has collected an enviable cast. Ann Roth has dressed them in outfits that look as if they've been purchased at Bergdorf Goodman. (Bergdorf Goodman receives thanks towards the back of the program.)

Close--with gray flip hairdo held back by a band and wearing outfits that whisper of utmost taste--plays Agnes to the estate born. The silken tones with which she dispenses her verbal assaults sound like no one she's played before. Certainly, Agnes is a far cry from Close's equally devastating curled-tongue Patty Hewes in her Damages series. This is an ultra- classy turn.

Lithgow has previously taken on parts like Tobias and so knows precisely how to go about them. Much of his stage time is given over to mixing the many drinks consumed by these tee-many-martoonis imbibers, but when towards the end, Tobias's veneer cracks, Lithgow goes to town with all engines firing. The adjective "awesome" is egregiously overused nowadays, but it applies here.

Not seen on Broadway since she was Amanda in the last Private Lives revival, Duncan gets the tipsy factor in Claire's manner just right. Not seen on Broadway since Vincent in Brixton, Higgins is properly overwhelmed by Edna's apprehension as well as amused at the pleasure Edna takes from unsettling Tobias and Agnes.

Plimpton's return to Broadway after recent television seasons on television's Raising Hope and The Good Wife is a reminder that she does no wrong, ever. She's totally on top of Julia's petulance. Balaban hasn't been seen on Broadway in a long time, either. His specialty is reticent men who may or may not stand up for themselves when push comes to shove. He works it just right here.

When Brian MacDevitt's lights go up on the breathtaking set (by the way, who painted the Constable-by-way-of-Corot-like landscape over the fireplace?), Agnes is speculating on the possibilities of losing her mind. She's mooting the mental state suggested by the title and thereby signaling that what's about to unfold concerns finding an acceptable equilibrium for a fulfilled life.

Albee is saying that these well-heeled people haven't achieved it. But theater is a matter of a delicate balance, too. Perhaps to those watching an Albee play for the first time, the delicate balance will be realized. For those who've seen it--and much of his canon--before, this revival could feel a bit off-balance.

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