This is the premise of Edward Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Delicate Balance, now having its third Broadway production. The impetus behind this reincarnation was apparently to bring three-time Tony Award winner Glenn Close back to Broadway for the first time in 20 years, after two decades of acclaimed film and television roles. She has been surrounded by British stage stars Tony and Drama Desk Award winner Lindsay Duncan and three-time Olivier Award winner Clare Higgins, as well as the American two-time Tony Award winner John Lithgow, Obie Award winner Martha Plimpton and Tony Award nominee Bob Balaban. All of these distinguished actors are handling Albee’s long, involved, complicated speeches for the first time.
The elegant and stylish production is directed by Albee specialist Pam MacKinnon who has staged the 2012 Broadway revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which won her both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for both Best Revival and Best Director, as well as the acclaimed Off Broadway productions of Albee’s Peter and Jerry (the double bill of “Homelife” and “The Zoo Story”) and Occupant. Then what is wrong with the production that the previous one in 1996 with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch now seems the definitive one, while the 1966 premiere seemed to confuse audiences and critics alike?
Although the play is written in the retro form of upper middle class drawing room comedy, it has a serious message and theme. The fear or terror that Edna (Higgins) and Harry (Balaban) bring to the home of Agnes (Close) and Tobias (Lithgow) is that which all people eventually have to deal with: loneliness, abandonment, illness, ageing, death. When asked what one of his plays was about, Harold Pinter, a playwright with a similar sensibility to Albee, declared, “The weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” On a surface level, this flippant remark appears meaningless, but on a deeper level it means the hidden fears that lurk in the dark corners of our lives to which we avoid giving a name. This also sums up the theme of Albee’s play which is couched in difficult set pieces and elliptical dialogue.
While A Delicate Balance treats this subject lightly as cocktail party conversation, there is a depth required which belies the treatment of the subject, as the characters rarely say what they really mean. MacKinnon’s production lacks the subtext under the glib aphorisms and the cruel gibes. Actors who have spent the most time on stage seem to be the most successful in reaching the right note. Duncan is best as Claire, Agnes’ wounded and malicious alcoholic sister who lives with Tobias and Agnes in an uneasy ménage. Her performance reveals the hurts and humiliations under her facile exterior that cause her to drink. Like her name, she is the only one with any true awareness or understanding of those around her. Next is Plimpton who plays the returning Julia as suitably whiny and strident, a woman with little self-knowledge but much pain. Ironically, Albee (as well as her performance) suggests strongly that Julia’s future is to turn into Claire later in life.
Higgins has a definite take on Edna as a strong, domineering wife and woman. A sort of parallel to her hostess Agnes, she is at times a bit too tough though she and Harry are the only characters who seem to be able to make decisions. As often in an Albee play, the husbands are subservient to their wives. The diminutive Balaban certainly plays Harry as a retiring man of integrity. However, the 5’5″ actor up against the 6’4″ Lithgow in the climactic scene in the third act adds a touch of humor not intended by the script.
And what of Close and Lithgow? Close has poise and elegance and chic. Her Agnes is the grand dame with the beautiful home and the rich husband, and with the burdens which she bears with grace of an alcoholic sister and her daughter who even as an adult can’t seem to find herself. However, while she has a handle on the surface meaning of her speeches, she never suggests what is underneath her savage remarks couched in articulate discourse. Her relationship with her husband remains an enigma. As Tobias, Lithgow has captured the weak husband, the retiring man who has left all of life’s important decisions to his wife. He rises to great heights in his third act confrontation with Harry as to whether he and Edna can remain in his house. However, he too fails to show the backstory of what made Agnes and Tobias the people they are.
Santo Loquasto’s library-living room set in olive, blue and beige-ivory is right out of House Beautiful and immediately telegraphs the life style and the income of the family that inhabits it. The costumes by Ann Roth are chic and smart, just what people of this economic bracket would wear. Brian MacDevitt’s subtle lighting never intrudes on the action of the play. The sound design of Scott Lehrer includes just the sort of music you would expect to hear in this setting. MacKinnon’s direction is always graceful and stylish. However, you may feel that she doesn’t dig deep enough into the play to reveal all of its hidden depths, but only skims the surface.
Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (though February 22, 2015)
John Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.adelicatebalancebroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions