A Delicate Balance is an unusually slow moving play for Edward Albee; the story is slight and the dramatic movement mostly internal. I seem to see it once every twenty years, more or less, and having just seen the new revival, I can be content for yet another twenty before getting another fix—but it is full to brimming with the author’s usual razor-sharp dialogue and theoretically (we’ll get back to that) provides meaty material out of which several stellar performers can make a relatively satisfying meal…satisfying, at least, for the audience members who can remain attentive through nearly three hours of little more than pouring drinks and making conversation.
The play is about a dysfunctional upper crust WASP family. It contains no topical references, nor even any vernacular that seems particularly dated, so, thirty years af- ter its original production, the program can still cite the time and place as "A well-appointed suburban house. Now." And you don't even blink.
The quality of dysfunction that makes this family so different from other dysfunctional stage families is an almost relentless self-knowledge. Cool, cutting patriarch Agnes (Glennn Close) knows full well that she is a creature of limited compassion, and makes no allowances for self-delusion. Her clinically despised sister Claire (Lindsay Duncan) has an unsettlingly perceptive view of her own chronic alcoholism. Only her husband Tobias (John Lithgow) seems to be foggy when reality checks are called for, or maybe he just hangs back to preserve the delicate balance of the household.
The first thing threatening to shatter that balance is the sudden appearance of Agnes and Tobias' oldest and best friends of forty years' standing, Edna (Clare Higgins) and Harry (Bob Balaban). They were alone in their house, they say, and suddenly, in- explicably, became frightened. And needed to escape the loneliness and terror and go where they would be wanted. To their friends. What they don't make quite clear, and only emerges later, is that they intend to move in.
This issue is brought to a boil by the appearance of Agnes and Tobias' daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton), who has arrived for comfort and succor, as she al- ways does, whenever she leaves a husband. (She has just left #4, prompting Claire to dub her a "quadruple amputee.") Raising an interesting issue: does the spoiled, adult daughter have claim to her old room; or do the sudden unannounced guests have the inalienable right to co-opt it?
The living room bar is never closed, the booze flows at all hours, and the dialogue is pithy. and arch nearly to the point of exhaustion.
Full disclosure: Most (though not quite all) of what I wrote above was cribbed from my 1996 review of the last revival, since that portion is about the text of the play, which hasn’t changed. But following those words, I also wrote these; and in re-reading, I tripped over them:
The odd thing about the play is that it seems to have one foot in some fantasy realm—this family is so catty, so bitchy, so quick to devastatingly quip, that they don't seem like a "real" family at all. (More on that later, though.) On the other hand, the dysfunction is so recognizable, the issues raised so potent, and the characterization and dramatic ground rules so consistent, that you find yourself accepting the rarefied universe in which this family seems to exist anyway.
I simply couldn’t apply them or anything like them to a review of the current revival because this time around…I don’t believe it.
In the last revival, directed by Gerald Guitierrez, the cast was so perfectly pitched that there was a family cohesion. They sold you on the illusion that you were watching people trapped in each other’s lives by dint of blood relation; whatever familiarity breeds, it was there under everybody’s skin.
But this time around, under the direction of Pam McKinnon—who would seem a fantastic idea on paper, especially after her mind-blowingly great job helming the last revival of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—the energies feel disjointed. And with one exception, the characterizations seem more like familiar tropes than family familiars. And this exposes the play in a light that oh, it so should not ever be in; because that light makes you more mindful of its mechanics.
I acknowledge that there are many many who think of A Delicate Balance as Albee’s masterwork, and it did win him a Pulitzer. So take with a grain of salt that I don’t, because I can’t, regard Albee as a great American dramatist, but as a notable American dramatist who managed a few gripping early plays off a verbal style that wouldn’t be out of place in the best noir pulps, energy and white-heat instinct; and then declined, with ambiguity and bitterness standing in for meaning and substance, because unlike those great old pulpsmiths, he doesn’t have the compensating gift of story—he stops at situation. In detail, that’s a position for examination in other reviews, other times (a few of which you may find in these cyber-pages), but is relevant here to the degree that A Delicate Balance builds toward a climax that only holds its own if you’re not thinking about the performances. If you maintain conscious regard of, say, Ms. Close’s studied aloofness, or Ms. Plimpton’s energetic brattiness, you also perforce remain mindful of Albee’s smug refusal to give the dramatic situation real definition, which obtains right through what’s presented as the moment of truth for Tobias, in which he must either definitively kick his friends out or open his house to them indefinitely.
Why John Lithgow alone is fully convincing here I’m not sure, but it may be because Tobias is alone is not possessed by the language and propulsion of fury; rather, he is bombarded by the rage and need of others and tries his best to remain a quiet referee. But, even he, exposed, has a dark nature (this kind of character is a specialty of Mr. Lithgow). And in the end, he delivers his conflicted speech with such sweet despair, such desperate confusion, that in a better production it would have been heart rending.
But here, alas, it seems only the capper…the moment that exposes the play most mercilessly because it’s a moment of merciless exposure for a character himself without a spine…
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