A Delicate Balance
Jonathan Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
Anyone who was privileged to see the phenomenal 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch knows that the next major New York staging of this play has a difficult act to follow. I will never forget how fast the curtain rose on that production to reveal Harris’s Agnes speaking her first hyper-articulate lines at a peak of inner tension masked by WASP control. Nor will I ever forget Stritch’s formidable booziness as Agnes’s parasitic sister Claire, or Grizzard’s climactic scene where the lies upon which his character Tobias has built his whole life dissolve.
The surprise of this current production of Albee’s masterpiece of existential dread in a drawing room is how ideally cast it is and how the actors find all kinds of original ways to play their juicy but difficult roles. Glenn Close chooses to play Agnes as a woman whose sanity is almost at the breaking point, an apt and exciting approach that gives new meaning to her first lines about going mad, which other actresses have played far more theoretically. Lindsay Duncan’s Claire is provokingly raffish, whispering where Stritch barked, retiring to the sidelines where Stritch hauled a natural spotlight wherever she went. Best of all is Martha Plimpton, who takes the play’s most unappealing but necessary part, the unhappy daughter Julia, and makes her into a bratty but sexy, worthwhile person who is clearly on the road to becoming just like her drunken Aunt Claire. And John Lithgow makes for a properly befuddled and ineffectual Tobias, at least at first.
A Delicate Balance is about many things, but its main theme is the test of love and friendship that comes about when Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Claire Higgins), the supposed best friends of Agnes and Tobias, knock on their door uninvited and try to move in. Why? Because they are frightened and they don’t know why. Claire and Julia see the couple as rivals for space in the house; Agnes sees them as carriers of disease; and poor Tobias doesn’t know what to think. He finally tells Harry they can stay, but Harry turns him down. This is a devastating climax, and if it doesn’t work then the whole play collapses. Unfortunately, Lithgow doesn’t quite have the emotion for it yet. He has made the choice to stalk around the stage and bluster out his feelings, and it isn’t working for him.
This is a bright and superlative production in practically all ways except the most important one, but as I say, I’m sure Lithgow will get it soon (the emotion should eventually come to him if he just stands still and says the lines). A Delicate Balance is maybe the finest play by our finest living dramatist, and to see it so imaginatively acted and directed (by Pam MacKinnon) is a