It’s a good thing that the six characters who do a lot of talking in Edward Albee’s 1966 play “A Delicate Balance” (winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) are worth listening to, despite some self-incriminating evidence to the contrary.
From his early one-acts to his most successful full-length, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” (currently having a lauded revival on Broadway, and reviewed in last week’s issue), to the more recent entries in his canon, Albee has, at his best, demonstrated how stinging, dense, and disorienting dialogue can be the key to a helluva good show.
If Albee’s plays often prompt critics to respond with words such as profound, provocative, forceful, witty, and even abrasive, these adjectives can presumably be thought of as a tribute.
More importantly, the words that come from his most challenging characters, especially in “A Delicate Balance,” constitute the form, indeed the essence, of theatricality, as beautifully demonstrated by a terrific cast under the sublime direction of Emily Mann in the splendid production now at the McCarter Theater.
Watching this particular play unfold, one suspects that Albee expects everything to be exactly as it was meant to be in this elusive drama about detachment, alienation, and loneliness.
For those of us who treasure theatrical memories, Jessica Tandy’s performance as Agnes in the original 1966 Broadway production is right up there, but so was Nancy Marchand’s in the same role at the McCarter Theater 17 years later. (I was, indeed, there as well.)
Now I am ready to add Kathleen Chalfant to my list of memorable Agneses, fully aware of how willingly I allowed myself to be dragged (or is it drugged?) into submission by this arresting actor’s stolidly individualized interpretation of the character (as well as by all the other characters and their long dissertations on fear, madness, and loneliness).
Chalfant certainly is carrying on the role’s requisite tradition of being a powerfully articulate and fearsomely communicative presence, yet with a bit more of a determinedly rigid edge.
A Chalfant fan ever since seeing her award-winning performance in “Wit,” as well as in a number of superbly defined subsequent roles (memorably as a grandmother in a family with secrets in “Red Dog Howls” earlier this season Off Broadway), I know I can always expect and get more than I bargained for.
Her every move or position on a sofa or easy chair appears calculated to make those on stage as well as those of us out front quiver and quake in anticipation of what may be forthcoming. What a marvelous tension Chalfant creates as she delves into Agnes’ expediently mad fantasy, basically a self-indulgent critique of her middle-aged life.
John Glover plays Tobias, her husband. As such, this always terrific veteran theater actor appears to be pursuing a more pathetically neurotic figure of decayed dignity, a side that may have eluded me before. True, Tobias is so withdrawn from life that his presence, while poignantly distressing, is also tantamount to madness.
There is no question that the role of Claire, Agnes’ drunken sister — who hangs around their home, drinks martinis or anything she can get her hands on (“But I’m not an alcoholic, baby!”), and is nasty to everyone within earshot — has a convincing interpreter in Penny Fuller. It’s both painful and funny to see Claire disturbing and disorienting the WASP-ish decorum of the disintegrating household with her vindictive gin-soaked barbs, if not her nest of wild curly blonde hair and more brazenly non-conservative attire.
Francesca Faridany proves an effective scene-stealer as Julia, the spoiled, assertively melancholy, thrice-divorced daughter, currently in the throes of another separation. How brilliant to cast this fine actress in whose face we can see an uncanny resemblance to Chalfant, who has the role of Julia’s mother.
Through Faridany, Julia’s tantrums upon returning to the womb are something to behold, if not unsettling. The scene in which she comes charging into the living room waving a revolver in her hand ready to shoot the visiting neighbors is particularly unsettling in the light of current events and the issue of emotionally unstable people having access to weapons.
Just as scary and unpredictable are Agnes and Tobias’ best friends and neighbors, Edna and Harry, who have moved into Julia’s bedroom. Roberta Maxwell and James A. Stephens are essentially weird in their purposefully mystifying roles of two people who suddenly became frightened, fearful as they sat alone in their own home.
Gathered together in an atmosphere of apprehension and fear, these desperately lost people spend the weekend asking questions, both rhetorically and of each other, on the nature of their feelings and relationship with each other.
Nothing much really happens to them, but I suspect that your attention will not waver from watching these somewhat illusory characters (to borrow from Albee) “face the dread at the bottom of their martini glasses.”
Any audience for this brilliant play will, nevertheless, have to face the fact that reality doesn’t seem to play as great a part in this play as does its allegorical resonance. Leave the reality to Daniel Ostling the set designer, who awes us with the well-appointed living room of a suburban home, and to costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser for creating beautifully chic outfits for Chalfant.
But mostly credit director Mann for making sure that no one says anything that he or she doesn’t mean at every moment.
As I was informed that Albee was present at rehearsals and did a bit of tweaking of the script, the only thing that caught my ear was the change to this original line spoken by Tobias, “No small wars; large anxieties, our dear Republicans as dull as ever,” has been changed to “our dear Republicans, as suicidal as ever.”
Accompanied by long-time friend and producer Elizabeth McAnn, 85 year-old Edward Albee looked chipper and dapper on opening night at McCarter, where we may presume he was as happy with this stunning production as he was with the recent national election. Good job, Edward.
A Delicate Balance, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 2 p.m., through February 17. $20-$65. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.