Last Updated on 27th April 2015
A Delicate Balance
The John Golden Theatre
15 January 2015
The sense of distilled gentility, of forced endurance, is thick in the air. Tobias is recounting in horrifying, exquisite detail the time when a favoured pet was put down; Claire is drinking cognac, watching Agnes who is studying Tobias intently, as if scouring plaster for cracks. Suddenly, someone is at the door. Like a squall of frenzied, clenched puffs of acid rain, in scuttle Edna and Harry, looking utterly out of place, homely, yet startled and unsettling. Their presence changes everything: the established rhythms of husband, wife and wife’s sister are shattered; there is now a new tune playing and no one really knows what it is. Except, possibly, Claire, whose inebriation seems to help rather than hinder her insightfulness.
This is Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Delicate Balance, now playing at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre, in a revival helmed by Pam Mackinnon who won a Tony Award for her direction of another Albee masterpiece: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. Just as Mackinnon reimagined that great text, dug for and found gold, so too, here, she approaches this play in a fresh way.
Whether that has successful results will be, no doubt, a matter of some debate. For me, this was by far the funniest version of this play I have ever seen. And because of that comedic edge, the grimmest sections seemed darker, the outpourings of vile and bile more desperately harrowing, the sense of lives lived in misery and misunderstanding more acute.
As with her version of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Mackinnon does not consider A Delicate Balance a star vehicle. Often productions focus on the appearances-are-everything Agnes, the alcoholic Claire or the serves-drinks-while-the-fires-of-hell-burn-around-him Tobias – but not here. This is a true ensemble vision of the piece. Everyone gets real attention and focus and, inevitably, the balance shifts. Different aspects of the play come into focus, characters that sometimes leave little trace suddenly assume real significance – with the result that pre-conceived notions you might have about the play are challenged.
This production sets its own agenda, all with the express blessing of the text, and the result is an energised, specific reading which focuses on loss, terror, friendship, rights and wrongs. Silence and pain. Fear and, eventually, hope.
Most productions of this play will involve a moment of true visceral horror, usually one that involves Claire and alcohol. Here, the moment comes, viciously and surprisingly, when Edna slaps Julia hard across the face. It is genuinely shocking, the force of the blow reverberating through the theatre.
Because here, Edna and Harry are critically important. They are frightened by some unnamed terror at their own home and, unannounced, seek refuge at the home of Agnes and Tobias, who are their oldest friends; they have known each other for 40 years. They seem mousy and skittery, but it turns out that they are made of stronger steel than any of the others with whom they seek refuge. Small in stature they appear at first, but as the play progresses each assumes a ruthless power, asserting their rights as they see them.
It is electrifying to watch this pair of outsiders upend and recalibrate a family that has dug its trenches and established its patterns, all for the sake of propriety and the balance of life.
Clare Higgins is absolutely sensational as Edna. She carries a mask of suburban jollity which is tougher than titanium, but her eyes are alive all the time – scrutinising, calculating, measuring and narrowing. Her entrance suggests that she has been gripped by terror, but that quickly dissipates when she is on turf she understands, where the rhythms are ones she knows. She smiles constantly, although it is clear she is not very happy with those on whom she smiles. It’s a terrific, inspiring performance full of nuance and wit.
Especially memorable is the scene where she describes to the other women how she had deceived Harry the night before, when he came to her bed, into believing that she wanted sexual relations with him. It is a cold, chilling moment and powerfully establishes her as the Alpha Female of the group. It also raises the question of whether it was Edna with whom Tobias once had a dalliance – Claire taunts Tobias with her knowledge of the incident but it is never clear who the woman was; Claire herself or someone else? Tobias’ venomous denunciation of Edna just before this scene questions his connection with her squarely. Why does he hate her so? Higgins breathes life into these undercurrents with consummate ease.
Ably partnering Higgins, as the apparently mild-mannered and small Harry is the wonderful Bob Balaban, who is a master of silence, pause and subtle menace. He can drink a swish of whiskey as though he was dropping an atomic bomb. His final scene with Tobias, where he forces his old friend to re-evaluate his life, is quite astonishing, full of power and understated wrath. Together, Balaban and Higgins make this production the success it is. They upset and then realign the balance in the household they invade.
Lindsay Duncan provides as sober an alcoholic Claire as I have ever seen and, surprisingly, it works extremely effectively. She convincingly establishes the habits and mannerisms of a life-long addict; she has vodka, gin and whiskey in her veins, together with the ice that usually accompanies them. It’s not an especially acidic or showy performance, but Duncan radiates pain and intelligence in equal measure. She drinks to drink, not to cope. Her work with the accordion is simply inspired.
Physically and vocally, she works as the sister of Glenn Close’s Agnes and the aunt to Martha Plimpton’s unhinged Julia. There is a clear sense of family which the actresses have chosen to express. Duncan’s clothes also mark her style out as opposed to that of Agnes, and it may be that she was aiming to hint at Claire’s sexuality with her cropped hair and trouser suits. On any view of it, this is a measured, finely calibrated and effective Claire; funny and awful at the same time.
Martha Plimpton does not fare as well. She is too shrieking and adolescent as Julia. Although Julia may never have grown up, Plimpton does not indicate any of the life lessons she must have learnt in her four marriages. The high pitched setting of most of her work is contrary to the lower pitch and pulse of the rest of the cast, which may have paid dividends if Plimpton did not seem so out of control. Perhaps, though, that was the point.
John Lithgow impresses, as ever, as the ageing patriarch, Tobias. He seems offhand and disinterested in the first Act, but that is just a clever way of indicating how Tobias copes with the women in his life. He dispenses liquor like a Doctor might dispense remedies for an epidemic; indeed, he carefully establishes the liquor cabinet as his domain, a place from which he can soothe the aggressors who prowl his lounge.
He comes viciously alive when he discusses the fate of the cat who would not play ball and died for that, and his growing sense of outrage and incompetence is finely judged. His two great scenes in the final Act are just terrific; Agnes telling him it is his decision what to do about the plague that has come into their life and Harry telling him that he and Edna will leave because their friendship is not what they thought it was. Lithgow is especially good falling apart under Bob Balaban’s Harry’s calm, scalpel like dissection.
Finally, Glenn Close, whose Agnes is both ordinary and luminous. She drips genteel affectation, hides her loathing of her situation most of the time and aches every time she has to quell an issue to restore the balance, as best she can, in her household. She is most effective in the moments when she is regarding others, assessing them and deciding how to deal with them. She is alive and focussed in every moment on stage.
She does not opt for a lyrical approach to the text and this pays dividends. The scene where she berates Lithgow’s Tobias for his refusal to have intercourse with her following the death of the their small son is harrowing – a glorious kaleidoscope of emotions and trauma. She manages the long monologues well and I especially liked the opening and closing speeches, where she talks about her fears about going mad and, in the last act, the healing power of sunlight. She seemed to me the perfect Agnes for this production: graceful, vindictive, resentful, sarcastic and fatally bruised. A powerful cocktail.
There are good performances two by the other central characters – fear and alcohol. Both seem permanently present on stage, in differing forms and differing ways, but both are essential to the lifeblood of Mackinnon’s vision. Interestingly, where her Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf made you want to rush to a bar and order a drink, this production has the opposite effect. It causes you to pause.
Santo Loquasto has produced a wonderful set: it looks like the opulent home of a retired millionaire. There are levels, rooms which are not used really in the play, a grand staircase and real sense of faded power and glory. The bar is centrally located, appropriately. Ann Roth’s costumes are stylish and quirky, adding to the sense of money and power – the difference between the clothes Edna and Harry wear and the clothes of the others is striking. Brian Macdevitt lights everything beautifully, and his sense of night descending and morning arising is moving and apt.
This is a starry production of a genuine American Classic drama. It is not a conventional production and all the more interesting for that.
Go see it. Make up your own mind.