A Delicate Balance

Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, currently in revival through February 17th at the Berlind Theater at Princeton's McCarter Theater Center, is a beautifully mounted production: superb acting, marvelous direction, and the handsomest of set and costume designs. This is a "chamber drama" in that all the action takes place in one room -- the grand living room of a rich patrician Connecticut family. The cast consists of six players: an extended family of four and their very best friends, a couple who drop in unexpectedly, apparently intent on staying indefinitely.

Mr. Albee's better-known play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, is a psychological Grand Guignol about an alcohol-soaked combative childless couple. A Delicate Balance expands that comedic horror story motif to include "family life," which is likewise marinated in alcohol. This well-heeled family consists of a middle-aged couple, Tobias (John Glover) and Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) [both shown above], their thirty-six-year-old thrice-divorced daughter, Julia (Francesca Faridany), and Agnes's alcoholic sister, Claire. Tobias and Agnes's best friends, the welcome (or unwelcome) guests, are Edna (Roberta Maxwell) and her husband Harry (James A. Stephens). Like their willing (or unwilling) hosts, they are rich and never seem to turn down an adult beverage. One is not actually required to like such people to be drawn into the drama in which we find them. Edgar Allen Poe's stories have many an unpleasant character, but (as with Mr. Poe), Mr. Albee's extraordinary knack is for vivifying his characters and sustaining their interaction. This compels the audience to stay with what is unfolding on stage, and to remain seated for the experience and the dénouement that the playwright has in store for them.

The plot is simple. Agnes and Tobias have many issues with each other (and with life at large) which remain unresolved. Among other items, Agnes is concerned about losing her mind one day. (As far as I can discern, Agnes already shows a borderline personality disorder, which is a key to the plot.) Tobias apparently wants just to be left alone to read the pile of books on the floor next to his well-worn leather chair (which is conveniently situated right in front of the well-stocked liquor collection). Daughter Julia returns home, having just left her fourth husband, and gives no reason other than that he is "negative" about everything. Alcoholic sister Clair flits in and out, intermittently staying awhile, being "what-the-hell" outrageous while tossing off many of the kind of bon mots for which Albee is famous. The best friends, Edna and Harry, show up unexpectedly, having both experienced a nameless terror in their home. They are seeking -- actually claiming -- the right of unlimited refuge at the home of their "best friends." Edna and Harry have taken Julia's room as their own, and Julia is outraged, justifiably so: she is dealing with her marital upset and just wants to be in the familiarity of her childhood bedroom. The focus of the drama becomes the question "what to do with the guests?" Getting to the answer sustains the action to the play's conclusion, lubricated along the way by multiple trips to the liquor collection.

Now, I do want to firmly acknowledge that this revival of 1966's A Delicate Balance is most superbly mounted. All of the six players are enormously skilled actors, with abundant and substantial credits behind them. Each possesses outstanding presence, which makes them equally compelling in both raucously active and as well as quieter moments. Emily Mann's direction shows a sure and mature hand at work -- and sustaining the intensity of an emotionally undulating drama such as this is no mean feat. The opening night performance I attended was fluid and engaging from start to finish. With Daniel Ostling's strikingly handsome set, Jennifer von Mayrhouser's timeless costumes, and Lap Chi Chu's beautiful lighting, this production was "Class A ready" for transfer from Princeton to Broadway.

A big "but": Regarding the play's standing in American theater, it well might be close to its retirement from the standard repertoire. Here is a drama about people with apparently plenty of money (and unseen servants), whose livers and kidneys are miraculously intact despite hefty and continuous (and most likely years of) alcohol consumption, who show no admirable character traits, and they have problems. Particularly in our current era, we must ask: Are their problems really worth the extended attention of an audience, sequestered in a theater for the full duration of three acts and two intermissions?

If one resists getting caught up with the characters' petty dramas, a close listening to what these characters exclaim reveals they are terribly unreliable witnesses to their own states of mind and states of being. They rattle on and on about themselves with an astounding lack of functional introspection. Their articulately spoken ruminations and rants do not lead them to any enlightenment, closure, or peace of mind. In addition, the characters show not one shred of nobility or empathy that would elevate their problems (and the audience's interest) into the realm of the universal. In the end, after all the sturm und drang, they wind up essentially where they began. I could well imagine their lives going on and on until the bitter end, with Tobias and Agnes later joining their "best friends" Edna and Harry at "the club" for dinner, with none of them mentioning a word about the nearly violent insanity they had experienced during the action of the play.

Yes, the ensuing years have left A Delicate Balance well behind. The current Pulitzer Committee members live in a society radically different from that of 1967, the year it was awarded the drama prize. Last year, the Pulitzer for drama went to Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, which the Pulitzer website describes as "an imaginative play about the search for meaning by a returning Iraq war veteran working in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Philadelphia." No matter how brilliantly written, theater about what has come to be called the 1% has entered the realm of the passé.

Let me clarify that it is not my contention that all theater needs to be gritty and head-liningly socially "significant" -- but if a play is to be about the lives of an increasingly hard-to-relate-to segment of society, then it has to offer something to which we can all connect: the possibility of the characters achieving a new self-understanding, or an expanded sense of relatedness, or enlightened self-transcendence. In A Delicate Balance, although there is an enormous amount of conversation, no one talks the least bit of sense to one another. Claire is an alcoholic (or "willful" drinker, as she calls herself) who Tobias enables by readily and repeatedly fixing drinks for her. In fact, every one imbibes at the drop of a hat. (It seems that in Mr. Albee's upper-crust Connecticut, the consumption of alcohol is a time-honored ritual and universal cure-all.)

If this were a more contemporary drama, Edna's and Harry's "moving in" would be an ideal occasion to turn Tobias and Agnes' home into a rehab facility, replacing the living room bar with an Antibuse dispensary; or instead of barging in on -- as is asserted over and over in the play -- their "best friends," wouldn't it have been prudent of Edna and Harry to head for the nearest emergency room to seek professional help for their severe panic attack? And just why are Edna and Harry even "best friends" with Agnes and Tobias? What do they have in common other than their affluence, the country club culture of which they are all members, and their vacuous psyches (and voracious thirsts). Apparently they are best friends because they are best friends -- which, when push comes to shove in the course of the play, does not stand for much. Goodness! How about a no-nonsense marriage counselor for Julia and her husband? What I am left with is that the characters of A Delicate Balance are spoiled, privileged, self-indulgent, concrete blockheaded, well-to-do individuals who avail themselves of none of the modalities at hand to effectively attain a modicum of serenity, not even the ones readily available when the play was written in the middle '60s. In other words, they are unredeemed wastrels with no aspiration to rise above their morass.

Now, if these characters are your cup of tea, and you favor the manner in which Edward Albee brilliantly frames, reveals, and revels in them, then this beautifully crafted production is for you. But if you wish to exit the theater uplifted by characters who somehow achieve a catharsis and develop a greater sense of their own humanity, you will have found yourself in the wrong theater. - Jay Reisberg

Photo credit: Richard Termine


Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.