"What is most astonishing", to use an oft-repeated phrase in Edward Albee's A DELICATE BALANCE, is that the playwright wrote this brilliant work when he was in his mid thirties. This is astonishing because, at this point in my life, I think A DELICATE BALANCE is one of the greatest plays about aging I have ever encountered, topped only by KING LEAR. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Cleopatra, Albee's play shows that age can wither and custom certainly can stale. We watch a group of characters who have allowed themselves to become very small. They live within a routine of visits to their club, golf, shopping and sniping over drinks. Agnes and Tobias live in a large, beautiful house tended by unseen servants. Agnes is intent on keeping her house in order, which means family members are to behave as she wants them to behave. Her husband Tobias is pleasant but ineffectual. Agnes's oft drunk sister Claire rebels against Agnes's iron rule, but also seems to have the clearest understanding of what is going on in this lavish house. The play takes place over a weekend. Old friends Harry and Edna show up and plan to move in because they became terrified in their own home. What scared them was a sense of nothingness, of the void their lives have become. Tobias and Agnes's daughter shows up after the breakup of her fourth marriage and wants to move back home. What are family obligations? What are the obligations of friendship? What duty do you have toward family and friends when you realize you dont' love them? Albee wants us to see his characters not only as individuals, but also a representative of traits in American society which he sees as lacking in the values and feelings necessity for a real human community on any level.
A DELICATE BALANCE is a beautifully written play, touching on poetry at times. One is reminded of T.S. Eliot's THE COCKTAIL PARTY and FAMILY REUNION in which characters come to realize the emptiness of their lives and in which domestic realism is combined with a kind of spiritual allegory. Eliot, however, saw an alternative to the dullness of earthly endeavor. Albee only sees nothingness. There is a fascinating tension between the trappings of domestic realism and the near-allegory of the play's action. The language moves toward poetry. Often character speak in long monologues rather than brisk dialogue as a reflection of their solipsism. The structure could not be clearer. It' a long play -- almost three hours -- but a riveting one.
The revival at the Almeida, directed by James MacDonald, couldn't be better. MacDonald has instructed his actors to play down the more operatic dimensions of the play -- the long narratives the characters spin, the slapstick. There's a sense of stasis that is most appropriate to the script.The wonderful Penelope Wilton, one of England's greatest actresses, plays Agnes not as an imperious woman, but as one who, though exhausted, will try to make sure the ship stays afloat. Agnes can seem domineering and cruel, but Wilton makes her deeply sympathetic. She has endured great disappointment. Tim Piggott-Smith's Tobias is convincingly ineffectual, though there are flashes of outrage. Above all, he doesn't want any conflict. Imelda Staunton makes more of a character out of dypsomaniac Claire than anyone I have seen. She has her showy moments, but is mostly sadly reflective. Lucy Cohu plays returning daughter Julia. Her regression to an hysterical adolescent when she can't regain her old place in the family is extremely convincing. Eveyone else is praiseworthy.
A DELICATE BALANCE is a profoundly sad play about diminished people whose lives, such as they were, lie behind them. They will go on, but they won't change. This fine production shows that it is one of the most powerful American plays of the last century.
A DELICATE BALANCE. Almeida Theatre. May 16, 2011.