The opening scene is a theater rehearsal hall with bare wood floors and putty-colored walls, though one is draped with black theater curtains. Tables in the shape of an octagon form a corral of empty space. Half-rings of tables repeat the shape as if fragmented puddles. A table before the black wall bears trays of bagels, cream cheese containers, and pitchers of bright juice.
As the mid-December morning light pours through the windows of the remaining wall and onto the tables, we see scores of men and women gathering in groups, moving to the refreshment table, or looking for seats.
A slender, gray-haired man with a mustache sits at the table; he is in a wheelchair. Sometimes people gather about him, but at other times he sits alone, silent. He studies the text in a spiral-bound notebook.
Someone calls, “Let’s get started,” and the group quiets and sits.
A sextet comprising two men and four women — each with a script in hand — takes its places at one side of the octagon. On the other is a fit middle-aged woman in a purple blouse; she stands next to the man in the wheelchair and as the room quiets says, “Welcome to the first rehearsal of ‘A Delicate Balance.’”
The woman is Emily Mann, McCarter artistic director, who will also direct the production. She stands next to the play’s creator, Edward Albee, nationally recognized as America’s greatest living playwright.
Together they are continuing to make history at McCarter Theater.
Mann continues, “I actually started with the play in a funny way. When I started at McCarter as artist director, the first call I made was to Edward Albee. I absolutely loved this play when I saw an (American Film Institute) movie when I was in college in 1971. It was done by Anthony Richardson, and I had been his assistant. I said what an amazing play and wanted to do it. But I wasn’t ready. So I put it away.”
The director, who has been at McCarter since 1990, continues: “When I finally attempted to do it Edward said, ‘I have given it to Lincoln Center. But I do have plays I will give you to look at.’ They were ‘The Marriage Play’ and ‘Two by Two.’ He directed ‘The Marriage Play’ here, and we had a wonderful time. That began the relationship and other plays, ‘All Over’ and ‘Me, Myself & I.’ Then I woke up one morning and said I am ready to do ‘A Delicate Balance.’”
“A Delicate Balance” is Albee’s 1966 full-length play, the first to give Albee a Pulitzer Prize. It continues at McCarter to Sunday, February 17.
The play focuses on Agnes and Tobias, a well-off middle-aged couple who live in an affluent suburban community. During the course of three days — from a Friday evening to a Sunday morning — the two will find themselves in complex situations with Agnes’s permanently visiting and alcoholic sister, the sudden arrival of their frequently married and frequently returning-home daughter, and the perplexing arrival of their married couple friends who announce that they have come to live with them.
To realize the production, McCarter’s cast features an accomplished six-member ensemble. Agnes is performed by Kathleen Chalfant (Broadway credits including “Angels in America” and “Racing Demon”), Tobias by Tony Award winner John Glover (Broadway credits “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and McCarter’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Athol Fugard’s world premiere “Sorrows and Rejoicings”), daughter Julia performed by Francesca Faridany (“Man and Boy” on Broadway and McCarter’s “Don Juan” and “Design for Living”), the couple who comes to stay by Roberta Maxwell (Broadway credits include the production of “Our Town” featuring Spalding Gray) and James A. Stephens (McCarter’s “A Christmas Carol” and “The Birthday Party” as well as Sir Peter Hall’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”), and as Agnes’ imbibing sister Claire, Penny Fuller (“Barefoot in the Park” and “The dinner Party” on Broadway). Fuller, incidentally, joined the cast during the second week in January and replaced original cast member Mary Beth Hurt, who was reported ill.
When the play had its Broadway premiere, New York Times critic and Albee biographer Mel Gussow wrote that the play “is Edward Albee in a reflective mood. It is full of Albee bite, bountiful bursts of colorful invective, repartee and shorthand character analysis, but the root of the play is something a lot more tender than anything he has ever attempted before. The play is marked growth for the author. For the audience, it is a strangely moving and disquieting experience.”
“I realized on waking up this morning that I could do the play because I can understand all the characters,” Mann confesses on that first rehearsal morning. She then talks about the ups and downs of her own life and relationships. “What Edward wrote is so vicious and so funny that it rings true. It’s my favorite play by Edward.”
“What about the others?” Albee says with feigned indignation about his 30-plus other works. It is delivered with expert comedic timing to create a surprise and a chuckle.
As Mann finishes her statements, she asks if the playwright has anything to add. He says “yes” and turns the moment into something akin to a religious ritual by saying, “My greatest moment is the first day of rehearsal. That’s because there’s an amazing transition taking place. By the end of the rehearsal, if it’s done right, I am no longer calling the actors by their names; I’m calling them the names of the characters. It is very fulfilling when that translation takes place. Very exciting, I love it.”
The transformation process is something to which the playwright has given his life, one informed by chance and self-determination, triumphs and tragedies, and human flaws and artistic mastery
The facts regarding Edward Albee are easy to find. He was born on March 12, 1928, in Washington, D.C., to Edward and Louise Harvey. Days later his father abandoned his mother. A few days later she relinquished the child to a New York City adoption agency. By the end of the month, the future playwright was placed with Reed and Frances Albee, an affluent, childless couple from Larchmont, New York (20 miles from New York City). The child was named after Reed’s father, the co-founder of the successful Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters.
While the young Albee was exposed to theater-life early on, his parents planned that he pursue more conservative professions and lifestyle. Family conflicts followed, exacerbated when the boy was enrolled into and then dismissed from the Lawrenceville School for poor grades (despite his noticed intellectual abilities) and his unwillingness to conform to the school’s standards regarding behavior. He was then sent to the Valley Forge Military Academy for short time, and then (to his family and headmaster’s relief) finished his college preparatory studies at the Choate School in Connecticut. He continued at Trinity College in Hartford, where he focused his attention on theater and literature, but his habit of skipping required classes and chapel services resulted in expulsion.
In 1950 irreconcilable family conflicts erupted, and Albee left for Greenwich Village in New York City. While he would never see his father again, he would attempt to reconcile with his mother 17 years later. In between, Albee would take advantage of post-war New York’s intellectual and creative vitality and explore writing as an artistic pursuit. He supported himself through an inheritance from his grandmother and taking various jobs, including delivering telegrams for Western Union. That “dead end” job allowed him to be free from personal and intellectual commitments. Since he frequently delivered notices of death, however, he found himself interacting with strangers during extremely sorrowful personal moments.
Originally he attempted to write poetry and fiction, but he eventually turned to playwriting. One of the sources for that change is connected to comments from Thornton Wilder, a former Lawrenceville School French instructor who became a celebrated American playwright (and whose influential play “Our Town” premiered at McCarter Theater in 1938). Albee had met Wilder and asked him to review his writing. After seriously considering the young Albee’s poems, Wilder asked him if he had ever considered writing for the stage. Albee biographer Gussow writes that the encounter was an important moment for the young writer.
Whatever the catalyst, Albee’s playwriting efforts bore fruit. In 1958 his first realized stage work, the unsettling two-character “The Zoo Story” appeared in the form of an extended one-act. Though a New York world premiere was elusive, Albee’s supporters connected him with European theater professionals who arranged for the play to have a German premiere, putting the play on a twin bill with Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” and earning Albee a Berlin Festival Award. In 1960 the play had its Off-Broadway New York premiere and received an Obie.
Three more provocative short plays followed, the anti-realism “The Sandbox” and “The American Dream,” and the overt social commentary (a rarity for Albee) “The Death of Bessie Smith.”
Then came his breakthrough full-length drama, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the title coming from a scrawl on a men’s room mirror that Albee encountered in a bar. That play’s 1962 Broadway premiere received two Tony Awards and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, bringing Albee celebrity and notoriety for his unflinching examination and frank treatment of a relationship. It also brought the financial success that would allow him to continue writing and to create a foundation to assist other playwrights.
Over the next several years, Albee would see the world-famous actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton star in the 1966 film adaptation of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” experiment with musical theater, and write several plays, including the first of his three Pulitzer Prize-winning works, “A Delicate Balance. The other two were for the 1975 “Seascape” and “Three Tall Women” in 1994.
With his constant creating of plays crafted with highly charged and original language as well as his work as an educator, human rights advocate, and supporter for other artists, Albee has received some of the highest awards in arts and humanities, including the National Medal of Arts.
While the facts are easy, Albee’s intent and process can sometimes seem elusive.
In an early writing, Albee notes that he was at first dismayed to be grouped into a newly recognized movement in the theater called Theater of the Absurd, coined by the Hungarian-born British critic Martin Esslin. That critic said that those playwrights — including Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet — share similar approaches, methods, and conventions to touch shared philosophical and artistic attitudes. Their philosophy was connected to the ideas expressed by post-World War II thinkers, including the French-Algerian playwright, novelist, philosopher, and Nobel laureate Albert Camus. He used the character of Sisyphus to exemplify a person’s need to participate in a world that was bereft of absolute meaning. “I continue to believe that this world has no supernatural meaning. But I know that something in the world has meaning — man,” states Camus.
Esslin writes that these new plays were “intended to convey a poetic image or a complex pattern of poetic images; they are above all a poetical form,” rather than a straightforward narrative. Albee, he added, fits into this artistic vision by his creation of allegories on American society and exploring its problems through suggestive and charged situations. Albee grew less offended by the term, but said, “I don’t like labels; they can be facile and can lead to non-think on the part of the public.”
In interviews and discussions Albee says that most of his plays “are concerned with life and death. Reality and illusion. Loss and gain. All those things.”
Several weeks later, as opening night draws near, the scene shifts to the playwright’s home in Manhattan. Like the McCarter Theater rehearsal hall, Edward Albee’s living space is a large open room with bare floors and one wall of window light. Situated in an old cheese factory in the middle of a TriBeCa block, the top floor has been home for the playwright for more than 30 years. Unlike the McCarter space, there are the three gathering areas of tables and chairs, and instead of actors and theater staff, sculptures people the room. They include works by his friend (and subject of his play “Occupant”) Louise Nevelson, African artists, and by Albee’s late long-time companion, sculptor Jonathan Thomas. The painting, collages, and prints by Kandinsky, Chagall, Milton Avery, Elizabeth Murray, and numerous others on the wall make the room appear to be a live-in art gallery. No signs of theater posters or awards are noticeable.
Albee — who is still in recovery from the open heart surgery that he underwent several months ago and sometimes requires the use of a wheelchair — enters with the support of a cane, sits amid his beloved art, and shares some thoughts on a few artists who have stimulated his work and his own musicality.
First among kindred-spirit artists is the Irish playwright and prose writer Samuel Beckett, whom Albee has called his “spiritual father.” Albee says that what most stimulated him was Beckett’s “precision, organization, clarity, humor, and inevitability,” the latter indicating that artist’s ability to accept life’s painful aspects. Albee notes that one of his early experiences with a Beckett play was “Krapp’s Last Tape,” which deals with aging and decay, yet has some wryly humorous moments.
The topic of humor leads the discussion to two American artists for whom Albee professes great appreciation and who suggest the range of Albee’s own approach to humor, also shaped by his early life of attending Vaudeville shows. Those artists are Burr Tillstrom and James Thurber.
Tillstrom was the creator of a hugely popular television program that began in the late 1940s and continued into the late 1950s, “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie.” The three characters in the title were two puppets and a woman, Fran Allison. The fast-passed witty show was improvised and broadcast live five days a week. It attracted an audience of children as well as devoted adults, including Thornton Wilder, playwright Maxwell Anderson, and Metropolitan Opera conductor Walter Taussig.
Albee says that he enjoyed Tillstrom’s wry humor and displays noticeable pleasure recounting an interaction with Tillstrom. “I went once to Burr’s house in Chicago, and he invited me into his living room and said that he would be right back. Then I heard his character Buela the Witch who talked to me the entire time. It was one of the loveliest conversations.” He smiles brightly.
Another artistic kindred soul was James Thurber, the New Yorker writer and cartoonist who created a world of mannered individuals caught in an imperfect and mildly inhospitable world, as attested by the cartoon where a sullen little girl is admonished by her mother’s statement, “You’re disillusioned? We’re all disillusioned.” Albee calls Thurber “one of the forgotten humorists of American Culture. He does an awful lot of good writing, like Beckett. Wry and good stuff. I like the wry humor of this work. I thought his prose was beautiful.”
In talking again about Beckett, Albee brings up a key to his own work, music.
“I enjoy music, mainly classical music, chamber music,” Albee says, “I have an enormous affinity for Bach.”
He continues to say that music is also very close to the soul of his work and a key to its understanding. “If you catch me alone in a room and I am listening to a text of mine, you will see me conducting. Introducing one person and then another,” he says. “I hear (my texts) as music. I hear it musically. If a person acting can’t get the rhythm right, then they are not listening.”
“When writing a new play, I hear the characters and I put it down. It happens when it needs to happen. When I hear it, I hear it precisely. I hear the rhythms and the pauses. I could conduct it. I am a very good conductor of my own work. I hear it as a score. I wanted to be a composer when I was a kid,” he says.
As if on a musical riff, Albee continues, “I am very precise about punctuation, and I use some very odd punctuation for the sound that I want. Plays are written in the present from the sound. They’re heard experiences. They are not a literary exercise for the voice. If you don’t get that right you are not going to get the meaning. A main thing about a play is that everything is in the present tense. It is alive and aloud, like music. Dialogue is a play in sound.”
That meaning, however, is not a closure or passive experience. “I don’t like plays where you have nothing to take out of the theater with you,” he says.
When asked about McCarter and Emily Mann, Albee says, “We seem to work well. She hears the music.”
Though Albee’s presence at the Lawrenceville School had a physical connection to the Princeton area, his artistic presence at McCarter started in 1963 when the cast of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” headed to Princeton for a special matinee presentation at McCarter. The first major production of an Albee play at McCarter was “A Delicate Balance” in 1983.
The first original work Albee created for McCarter was his contribution to “Faustus in Hell,” in which seven American playwrights created scenes to depict the Seven Deadly Sins; Albee’s scene represented “Envy.”
In 1992 Emily Mann brought Albee to McCarter to direct his 1987 work “The Marriage Play.” A decade later, she directed her first Albee play, his 1971 “All Over.” Then McCarter commissioned a new work from Albee and had Mann direct the 2008 world premiere of “Me, Myself & I.”
The scene moves from the larger spaces to a boxy, sparse, mirrored dressing room deep in McCarter Theater. Here Mann says during a rehearsal break that while she had wanted to do “A Delicate Balance” a decade or two earlier, it seems that the wait was important for the art. “You enter the play at different points of your life. I first entered the play through the daughter, although I was younger than the character. The play deals with love and family and death and mortality. At this point my life, I am in the years of Agnes and Tobias. I have a 91-year-old mom who is helping me with what this play is about. Edward is also in his 80s. All these things enable me to enter the play.”
The director adds, “A Delicate Balance” is “one of the most beautiful plays that I have had the privilege to direct. The sentences give an incredible idea of the playwright. Edward talks about it as a score, but you can’t be a slave to it. It’s all under the surface. You have to plumb the work and lines. The actors have to dig deeper into the emotions. The actors are being challenged into being creative. It’s an exciting process.”
It is also an evolving one. “Everyday you think you know what is going on, but you discover something new every day. You can spend a lifetime working on this play. The precision is in each sentence. Other plays with this precision are Shakespeare and Beckett. His punctuation tells how to speak the language,” says Mann.
When asked what Albee’s ongoing presence has meant to McCarter, the director readily responds, “It’s quite something that the greatest living playwright considers me one of his main directors and considers this as a home for him. We treasure that and we never take it for granted. “
Albee also has more personal connections to Mann, who is both a director and playwright. On the former, Mann says, “He keeps me at the top of my game. He has an unfailing eye and ear. He is so precise in everything. It’s exciting to have someone at your side who has that meticulous attention to detail. When it comes to the tone of a scene, he’s right there.”
Mann also expounds on an idea that Albee has spoken about throughout his long career, directors taking a stage work and taking liberties with the text that serve the director’s artistry rather than the playwright’s original intent. “Edward and I agree on the idea of a director taking your play and interpreting it. Do not mess around with it, especially a play by a young writer. Do the play. If you want authorship as a director, then write your own play, or if you want to deconstruct Ibsen or Chekhov, that’s okay. But I’m with Edward. The director is there to help the play. The ego has to be put in the right place. If you do a good job, the director will be invisible.”
As for Albee the playwright, Mann says, “He has meant a lot to me, since the 1980s. He’s been a great model to me. It’s a very fickle culture — the American theater culture — there was a time when he was the greatest, then the critics turned on him. But he kept writing, not repeating himself, and kept looking at new forms. “
She also appreciates his commitment to others. “In an ungenerous field he’s been very generous. He’s loyal in a disloyal field. He works for writers. He cares about the art form and cares about other writers. Without playwrights there’s no future in the American theater.”
“I was terrified by Edward for years,” Mann says, reflecting on the start of their 20 year artistic partnership. “But by the time we were doing the second play, we developed an easier relationship. It gave me great confidence when he would ask me as a writer and director for my opinion. It’s all about the work, and we would discuss it and get so specific. He encourages me to disagree with him, when it is warranted. It’s built on respect. We’re harmonious. He knows as a fellow writer that I will realize his work.”
Moving from the playwright’s home to the dressing room to the rehearsal hall, the final scene for this production of “A Delicate Balance” has the actors in place on McCarter’s Berlind stage, where the play, already in performance, prepares for its official opening, 8 p.m. this Friday, January 25.
Now it’s the audience’s turn to take its places and get started.
Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesdays through Sundays to February 17. $20 to $65. www.mccarter.org or 609-258-2787.