“Time happens, I suppose. To people. Everything becomes … too late, finally.” Thus opines matronly Agnes (Glenn Close). No, she has not been asked to summarize the plot of A Delicate Balance, the Edward Albee parlor puzzler in which she appears – although if you don’t let in this desolating, resonant piece (via brain or heart), it might indeed seem little else than two talky hours. When Balance opened in 1966, respectable critics derided the cryptic piece as hollow. “Albee seems to be stimulated by mere artifice,” grumbled the eminent Robert Brustein, “and the result is emptiness, emptiness, emptiness.” Early reviewers had clearly mistaken the medium for the message. A stony stare at varieties of moral vacancy, the play itself is full to bursting.
What it churns with, most obviously, is lapidary verbiage. Albee’s characters don’t simply engage in idle suburban chitchat as they guzzle martinis or sprawl over Santo Loquasto’s cozy, plush set. They twist their souls into pretzeled locutions about the state of their minds, measuring the precise geometrical shape of their relations. Agnes begins with a Jamesian self-examination of incipient madness. Her passive husband Tobias (John Lithgow) ends the third act with an anguished, orgasmic aria to his friend, imploring him to stay – for reasons not even Tobias can understand. He’s not alone; this is a deliberately cryptic fable of love and betrayal, and its characters teeter precariously between extremes of morbid stasis and fatal chaos.
So what actually happens? Tobias and Agnes trade barbs with Agnes’ alcoholic, truth-telling sister Claire (Lindsay Duncan, dry with a twist). Their married friends Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) show up unexpectedly, claiming to have been driven there by some unspecified terror. They promptly, absurdly, move in. When Julia (Martha Plimpton), Tobias and Agnes’ spoiled, oft-divorced daughter, shows up to find strangers in her bed, our hosts must decide if their loyalty lies with blood or society. In this contested home, everyone is an invader, an occupier, and Agnes is adamant that order be restored. Her speech likening needy Harry and Edna to plague victims is repugnant but cleansing in its extremity.
For better or worse, I never saw the 1996 Lincoln Center revival, which reportedly struck a more realistic tone. But Pam MacKinnon directs this solid revival with a keen ear for the curling, teasing rhythms of Albee’s ornate lines, and the performances are top-notch, including the perfectly deadpan Balaban and a sinister Higgins as the unwelcome guests. Plimpton finds sympathetic notes in the difficult, shrill role of Julia, and Close and Lithgow handle their tricky speeches with grace and nuance. Agnes is by nature a cool, distant figure, the real muscle in this household, even if she leaves the final decisions to Tobias. Close plays the icy surface of her character with assurance and imperturbable calm; it’s the cracks we rather miss. However, if Close is a touch too frosty, she’s thawed by Lithgow’s warmth, which really gives the play its most anguished and human moments.
If you’ve never read this densely textual play (recommended) or watched Tony Richardson’s 1973 film adaptation, the Pulitzer Prize winner can be frustrating. That effect may be what Albee intended all along. He was never interested in comforting or assuaging. This coyly coded but weirdly moving classic reminds you that while the author is best known for the superficially naturalistic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he was always a downtown experimental artist, one who worked in the mainstream while taking aesthetic risks. Talk about a delicate balance.