August 2l, 2010 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
Edward Albee as playwright has a delicate balance with me personally. I find his plays original, dynamic, hysterically funny and at the same time incredibly distressing. I am, personally, an Albee fan with reservations and a certain wariness in seeing one of his plays.
I discovered Albee, playwright quite by accident around 1960 when, living in Lenox, I drove down to Washington Square to meet my friend Alan Schneider (we both got our MA’s in theatre at U of Wisconsin) and see the Beckett he was directing that afternoon at the Provincetown Playhouse, Krapp’s Last Tape.
But Alan was more excited about the second half of the afternoon’s program which he had not directed. It was by an unknown young man who had never had a play produced in US but finally got one done in Germany (in German) and now it was being done here in the US. This was a young man to watch. His name was Edward Albee.
The play was The Zoo Story. In it we meet the first member of that dismally disoriented family into which Albee was disastrously adopted. And we get the first of those long monologs—the story of Jerry and the Dog. Ending in the death of the dog, just as in the play under current discussion, we get the story of Toby and the Cat.
The plot of A Delicate Balance again concerns a family loosely based on Albee bio. Tobias and Agnes (Jonathan Hogan and Maureen Anderman) a middle aged couple seem to have accepted their life in suburbia, although for the past thirty years have had separate rooms, and their privacy has been broken by the almost constant presence of Claire, (Lisa Emery) Agnes unmarried and drunken sister who quite literally lives with them.
Quite suddenly the domestic scene is again shattered by the sudden return of the thirty year old daughter of the marriage, Julia (Mia Barron) who is giving up on her fourth at tempt at marriage and coming back to the parental nest. Only to find out that out of the blue the best friends of the house owners, Tobias and Agnes, Edna and Harry (played by Mia Dillon and Keir Dullea) have suddenly appeared in their living room announcing that some unspecified and indescribable fear has suddenly made them terrified to remain at home and so naturally they have arrived at the home of their best friends whom they knew would be delighted to take them in. Which the startled but accommodating Tobias and Agnes do. And Julia can arrive and go into hysterics because someone is sleeping in her bedroom.
Thus the delicate balance between what one is willing to do for ones relatives as opposed to what one is willing to do for ones best friends begins early and wages its domestic war through a marvelously funny, despite grim forebodings, three acts until it reaches a somewhat sort of finish with all left standing to fight again.
The play is brilliantly written and demands big stars in at least 3 (or 4) of its roles, and equity stars for the lesser two roles of the two friends. The current production under the direction of David Auburn is fortunate in its casting and has made sure that the current production swirls with humor, into which at moments, scarey moments, pull us into realizing just how precarious most family situations have the potential for becoming.
The six characters are clearly defined. Agnes is the mother. She may not approve of what goes on, but on the surface she is quietly in control, although capable of raising her voice (but never her temper). When things get really snarled, she almost calmly takes her screaming daughter and leads her quietly up the stairs to bed in a room that must take the place of the one from which she is screaming about having been evicted. Agnes as calmly as though the naughty child would not eat her carrots. Anderman handles the role with finesse.
Hogan as Tobias is central to the sniping and snarling domestic brawl that swirls through his living room. He treads the delicate balance between total disfunction and some normalcy in his home. And quite suddenly, but perfectly calmly he sits alone in a chair DL and becomes spell-blindingly central as he insists on quiet while he tells us his Tale of the Cat. His facial expressions, small gestures of body language, his thirty years of separate bedrooms, are there in a fascinating manner. There is sniping and sniping.
Claire is so volatile that she is hard to describe. She is as central figure as her sister is and is permitted much more leeway in terms of motor abilities. Claire is scarcely ever still, even when sitting down, even when lying on the floor with a bottle on her belly, even when she is playing the according or untangling whirled up hair. She is what many would describe as a caution. And is one. Emery is well cast and snipes away with glee in her role. Her explanation as to why she is not “a” alcoholic is extremely funny as well as terrifying.
Harry and Edna are totally convincing in their smaller roles. Dullea takes over the bar with calm poise of “being in the living room where he deserves to be as best friend all these years with Tobias:” and what could be more natural? And Edna is so at home that she is considering redecorating some of the chairs, and why not indeed if she is to remain there for the rest of her life?
So, in my own delicate balance on Albee, I would vote on seeing this performance. It takes the Virginia W. family group (always somewhat autobiographical) further along by adding members to the mix and although the former is better known (probably because of the movie), A Delicate Balance is a better play and definitely worth seeing.