THEATER REVIEW: A Delicate Balance
Golden Theater, New York, January 18, 2015
“I was wondering when it would begin… when it would start.”
For the first forty minutes of A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee teases us with the passive-aggressive whispers of a sedate upper-class family, sipping anisette (“Sticky.”) and cognac in their austere living-room. Agnes, the matriarch, opens the play musing, “What I find most astonishing…”, then trails off about going mad before returning to her main grievance: her sister Claire. Though her husband Tobias has a certain kinship with Claire, Agnes is bitter and (quietly) snappish to her sister; she sees Claire as an intruder in their house.
And by the end of Act One, it begins… the real threat. Intruders everywhere, encroaching on Agnes’s peace of mind. Tobias and Agnes’s “best friends”—in their words—Harry and Edna come over unannounced. Sitting at home in the night, they suddenly felt frightened. So they’ve come to stay. Fear is not a word Agnes permits herself to understand; she removes it from her speech at the beginning:
What astonishes me most—aside from my theoretically healthy fear—no, not fear, how silly of me—healthy speculation that I might some day become an embarrassment to you…
Suddenly, the house is thrown into a chaos of space and language. Edna takes Agnes’s place on the couch, and they both sleep in the room that was Julia’s, Agnes and Tobias’s daughter. When Julia comes home the next day, after leaving her fourth husband, she demands to reclaim her bedroom, her space, with none of her parents’ decorum. “You are a guest in this house!” she shouts at Edna. But isn’t Julia, too?
Most of this comes from Agnes’s P.O.V. because Glenn Close tips the (well…) balance toward her character. Close does not upstage anyone; in fact, maybe she’s too soft at times Agnes could bite more. It’s a smart, sympathetic reading: She harps on Claire, but doesn’t sting too sharply; she watches over everyone to keep control, not out of deliberate cruelty or manipulation. By contrast, Lindsay Duncan is a proudly sardonic Claire, with a husky voice and broad accent that relishes each zinger. I bet she finds it tough to compete with this to-the-manner-born Agnes—so why try to maintain order? John Lithgow works as the buttoned-up Tobias because we know he has a tamped-down energy that needs to be freed.
There were mixed early reactions to Pam MacKinnon’s production. I suspect it’s the slow pacing that rankled critics. I found the show intelligent and purposefully quiet, though a little too careful. The ensemble, though, is committed to Albee’s specific directions. Agnes in the script is “wistful, maybe.” Clare Higgins (perhaps the best performance) plays the “strict, soft, and powerful” Edna, a remarkably unshaken woman making herself at home… where she’s not wanted. When Julia enters with a gun, Martha Plimpton’s Julia deflates so quickly; but that’s how Albee writes it, “not pointed; awkwardly and facing down.”
After seeing MacKinnon’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I believe she downplays these oversized Albee characters’ eccentricities because she empathizes with them. This may rub you the wrong way, for A Delicate Balance is intensely about white class privilege. Even its fears and discomforts about stability and sanity and what’s mine. The fear, of course, of becoming outmoded, no longer on top. But you sense, from the relative cool in the air, that all this will pass. We will start all over again.
Footnote: When is this revival set? Glenn Close’s outfits—unflattering robes and moo moos—suggest an older generation, not a current 50-60 something; but Harry and Edna are dressed in contemporary clothes, and the program says “NOW.” If it is NOW, it’s an interesting layer to add: the ongoing cluelessness of the 1%.