The first Off Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, first Pulitzer Prize-winning play (of three), is also the first to feature an all Asian-American cast as well as being the first New York production of an Albee play to be performed by a non-white cast. A coproduction of Transport Group and the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), it is has been directed by Jack Cummings III, Transport Group’s artistic director. The production is elegant and polished, if a bit leisurely. However, at two hours and 45 minutes the running time is the same length as the 2014 Broadway revival. The six character cast is led by Mia Katigbak, actor-manager and co-founder of NAATCO.
A Delicate Balance concerns a dysfunctional wealthy suburban family but the play’s themes of friendship, family relationships, parent and child dynamics, and one’s place in society are all universal themes. Although it was not known at the time of its Broadway world premiere in 1966, four of the six characters are based on Albee’s adopted family. Agnes and Tobias are a comfortable retired suburban couple who spend their time seeing their friends at the country club. Agnes’ alcoholic sister Clare is a permanent house guest. They have an uneasy but stable modus vivendi.
Then one night their best friends Edna and Harry arrive on their doorstep claiming that a nameless “fear” has driven them from their home and that they wish to be taken in. Following that event their daughter Julia arrives home after the breakup of her fourth unsuitable marriage and is furious to find that Edna and Harry are ensconced in what was once her room. Agnes and Tobias’ delicate balance has been shattered and their relationships may never return to the normalcy they once knew.
Things get worse when Edna and Harry go home to get their suitcases in order to move in permanently. What are they running from? It has been defined as ageing, death, illness, bankruptcy, ostracism, all the things that modern people worry about. Harold Pinter (with whom Albee was often classified) once said his plays were about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet,” in other words, the nameless things we fear that we dare not give voice to and normally sweep under the rug.
Set in the elegant library-living room of the suburban mansion of Agnes and Tobias, this production puts the audience right in the room with them: Peiyi Wong’s setting has been created on a thrust stage which places the audience on either side of the room. Two similar brown leather sofas face each other, with a coffee table in front of one and an ottoman in front of the other. At one end of the room is a breakfront cocktail cabinet, while at the other are steps leading to the hall stairs to the second floor (which in this production is actually on the original stage of the Connelly Theater.) The audience could not be closer to the action which is a very clever arrangement. Books surround the platform on which the library-living room sits.
While Cummings’ direction is rather conventional and civilized, it is satisfying just because it is so straightforward and unfussy for a very talky and philosophical drama. His six-person cast becomes a true ensemble from the first time we see each of them. In the leading role of the domineering Agnes, Katigbak is suitably authoritarian, superior, imperious and self-involved. Manu Narayan as her husband Tobias seems weak in the first two acts, but as in three previous New York productions he finds his voice in the third act when he has to tell Harry whether he really wants him and Edna to move in permanently with them.
Carmen M. Herlihy’s Claire is not the star turn of previous productions but she does suggest the subtext to her drinking. Both Rita Wolf and Paul Juhn as the intruders are equally reserved, serene and aloof, making clear they do not wish to discuss what drove them from their home. As the 36-year-old Julia, Tina Chiip is a bit whiney which is certainly one way to play this entitled daughter of privilege. The sextet work well together as people who have always known each other and have a working relationship – until events force them to develop a new one.
Along with the elegant interior, Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes, each in a single hue, are chic and becoming. Simple as they are, they suggest a high price tag. The lighting by R. Lee Kennedy is soft and subtle without suggesting a twilight world of half-light. This third New York revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is neither flashy nor groundbreaking excepting in its casting which shows that it is universal. It also continues to demonstrate that it is an acting tour de force for the right actors with its many monologues, long-speeches and acerbic dialogue. It shows why this is a favorite among star performers from the three Broadway productions to The American Film Theatre presentation with its starry cast led by Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick and Joseph Cotton back in 1973.
A Delicate Balance (through November 19, 2022)
Transport Group, in association with National Asian American Theatre Company
The Connelly Theater, 220 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.transportgroup.org
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including two intermissions