A Delicate Balance
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A Delicate Balance. John Golden Theatre (see Broadway). By Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. With Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan, Bob Balaban, Clare Higgins, Martha Plimpton. Running time: 2hrs 45mins. One intermission.
A Delicate Balance: In brief
Edward Albee won his first Pulitzer Prize for this unnerving and piercingly eloquent 1966 study of fear, madness, addiction and companionship. The new revival, staged by the outstanding Pam MacKinnon, features a dream cast: John Lithgow, Glenn Close, Martha Plimpton, Lindsay Duncan and Bob Balaban.
A Delicate Balance: Theater review by David Cote
“Time happens, I suppose. To people. Everything becomes…too late, finally.” Thus opines matronly Agnes (Glenn Close). No, she has not been asked to summarize the plot of A Delicate Balance, the Edward Albee parlor puzzler in which she appears—although if you don’t let in this desolating, resonant piece (via brain or heart), it might indeed seem little else than two talky hours. When Balance opened in 1966, respectable critics derided the play as hollow and empty. They’d confused the medium for the message. A stony stare at varieties of moral vacancy, the play itself is full to bursting.
What it churns with, most obviously, is lapidary verbiage. Albee’s characters don’t simply engage in idle suburban chitchat as they guzzle martinis or sprawl over Santo Loquasto’s cozy, plush set. They twist their souls into pretzeled locutions about the state of their minds, measuring the exact geometrical shape of their relations.
Agnes begins with a Jamesian self-examination of incipient madness; her passive husband, Tobias (John Lithgow), ends the third act with an anguished, orgasmic aria to his friend, imploring him to stay—for reasons not even Tobias can understand. He’s not alone; this is a deliberately cryptic fable of love and betrayal, and its characters teeter precariously between extremes of morbid stasis and fatal chaos.
So what actually happens? Tobias and Agnes trade barbs with Agnes’s alcoholic, truth-telling sister, Claire (Lindsay Duncan, dry with a twist). Their married friends Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) show up unexpectedly, claiming to have been driven there by some unspecified terror. They promptly, absurdly, move in. When Julia (Martha Plimpton), Tobias and Agnes’s spoiled, oft-divorced daughter, shows up to find strangers in her bed, our hosts must decide if their loyalty lies with blood or society. In this contested home, everyone is an invader, an occupier, and Agnes is adamant that order be restored. Her speech likening needy Harry and Edna to plague victims is repugnant but cleansing in its extremity.
I never saw the 1996 Lincoln Center revival, which reportedly struck a more realistic tone. But Pam MacKinnon directs this solid revival with a keen ear for the curling, teasing rhythms of Albee’s ornate lines, and the performances are top-notch, including the perfectly deadpan Balaban and a sinister Higgins as the unwelcome guests. Plimpton finds sympathetic notes in the difficult, shrill role of Julia, and Close and Lithgow handle their tricky speeches with grace and nuance. If Close is a touch too frosty, she’s thawed by Lithgow’s warmth.
This weirdly coded but rhapsodic classic reminds you that while Albee is best known for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he was always a downtown experimental artist, one who worked in the mainstream while taking aesthetic risks. Talk about a delicate balance.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Albee’s Pulitzer winner still stings and sings.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote