Towards the end of the first act of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1966), currently playing in a stunning revival at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Tobias (John Glover) late middle-aged, upper- middle-class suburbanite, reminisces about a pet cat he had owned and loved for many years. One day he realized that “she didn’t like me any more. It was that simple …. I resented having a … being judged. Being betrayed.” So he took her to the veterinarian to be put to sleep.
Some forty years later Tobias lives in a precariously balanced marriage with his wife Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant). Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire (Penny Fuller) has taken up permanent residence, and, before long, best friends Harry (James A. Stephens) and Edna (Roberta Maxwell) move in, followed soon afterwards by Tobias and Agnes’ 36-year-old daughter Julia (Francesca Faridany), returning home from the break-up of her fourth marriage. Tobias’ cat story may be a metaphor for the human relationships in this play, but there is no vet available to provide a simple way out for any of these tortured characters. They must live with the losses inflicted by time and the existential terrors of human life.
A Delicate Balance, the first of three Albee plays — also Seascape (1974) and Three Tall Women (1991) — to win the Pulitzer Prize, resonates with a striking immediacy and timelessness in this brilliant, thoroughly engaging production. Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director and a longtime friend and collaborator of Mr. Albee, has directed here with authority and wisdom, bringing out the full horror and the full tenderness of these thoroughly mundane yet bizarre proceedings. Ms. Mann has assembled an ideal cast, and together they deliver richly deep, complex individual characterizations and an array of relationships that are utterly credible, intriguing, and three-dimensional.
Despite the familiar surfaces in this drama, with an opulent, deceptively conventional upper-class suburban living room setting, beautifully and realistically designed by Daniel Ostling, this is a difficult play for audiences and actors. There are frequent moments of humor, but the themes here are dark, the loquacious dialogue requires close attention, and the play — at least by contemporary standards — is long, about three hours. And nothing happens, or at least not much seems to change from beginning to end for these despairing characters.
A Delicate Balance might be just as mean and deadly as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1961), considered by many to be Albee’s greatest play, but A Delicate Balance is more subdued, more civilized. In the world of Agnes and Tobias, who were to some degree modeled after Mr. Albee’s adoptive parents, the proprieties of upper class WASP society, that “balance” that Agnes has dedicated her life to preserving, are mostly, except for one or two major outbursts, maintained. “There is a balance to be maintained, after all,” Agnes declares, ” though the rest of you teeter, unconcerned, or uncaring…”
All three acts of A Delicate Balance take place in Agnes and Tobias’ living room. Mr. Ostling’s set is rich in detail, from Oriental rugs to high white molding, beautifully upholstered furniture, sconces, chandeliers, archway leading to front hallway, stairs, and dining room on stage left, adjoining room and backstairs on stage right. At first glance you might want to move right in. After watching the events that transpire during the course of the drama, you will change your mind. A well-supplied liquor table sits at center stage, and alcohol — brandy, cognac, anisette, gin, martinis — serves as a frequent topic of conversation and a motif throughout the play. Claire’s alcoholism is a constant issue and alcohol is a means to help all to escape unpleasant truths and memories and to maintain the “delicate balance” in their lives.
The difficult relationship between Agnes and Tobias quickly becomes apparent in the first act. The intrusions on their shaky domestic scene rapidly ensue. First Claire, who may have had an affair with Tobias in the past but in any case poses a constant threat to her sister’s need for order and control, enters the scene from upstairs. Then Harry and Edna suddenly appear at the front door, with no explanation except that “WE WERE FRIGHTENED … AND THERE WAS NOTHING.” They insist on taking refuge with Agnes and Tobias. They act as if they belong there. By the start of the second act, the angry, self-centered Julia, furious that her childhood room is occupied by Harry and Edna, has joined the volatile mix.
The odd presence of Harry and Edna, and the terror they bring with them threaten to upset the status quo, the social equilibrium of the household. The terror is never specified, never explained, but it is completely credible. Is it the existential fear of loss, the terrible compromises of life, the doubts brought on by contemplation of old age and death? A Delicate Balance is certainly about the needs and requirements of friendship, but it is also about the despair of the human condition and, as Mr. Albee is quoted in his biography by Mel Gussow, ”the isolation of people who have turned their backs on fully participating in their own lives and therefore cannot participate fully in anyone else’s life.”
Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes is elegantly controlled, stern, judgmental, and eloquent in her defense of her way of life. Much celebrated star in Angels in America on Broadway and Wit Off-Broadway, Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes sees herself as the fulcrum of the balance in the family, and is determined to “keep this family in shape. I shall maintain it; hold it.”
Mr. Glover (Tony Award winner in Love! Valour! Compassion! along with numerous other Broadway, Off-Broadway and film credits) provides a worthy counterpart and foil to Ms. Chalfant’s Agnes. He is often passive, attempting to be conciliatory with his wife, sister-in-law, daughter, and friends, trying to do the right thing with his intrusive friends, and suffering visibly and sympathetically in “the dark sadness” he inhabits throughout the play.
As Agnes’ alcoholic sister Ms. Fuller injects energy and a needed breath of candor, humor, and fresh air to the household and the events of the play. Ms. Faridany is utterly believable in her characterization of Julia, and even easy to identify with in her anger and resentment at the loss of her childhood and her inability to reclaim her old room.
Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Stephens, as embodiments of the inexplicable fear that pervades the proceedings, are suitably restrained yet dynamic, ominous yet worthy of sympathy, kindness, and pity, from us and from Tobias and Agnes. These character portrayals are other-worldly yet entirely down-to-earth and realistic.
The six-member ensemble, meticulously, seamlessly directed by Ms. Mann, is intensely focused, in character and convincing. The relationships here are endlessly fascinating and thought-provoking, as this extraordinary cast artfully delivers both the dazzlingly eloquent surface and the terrifying depths of Mr. Albee’s play.
Mr. Albee, who was in the audience for last Friday night’s opening, explained, at the time of the last major revival of the play, in 1996, that A Delicate Balance “concerns — as it always has, in spite of early-on critical misunderstanding — the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” That message and the enduring power of this disturbing play and its troubled characters continue to resonate richly seventeen years later in Ms. Mann’s memorable production.