Who's afraid of Edward Albee?
When his plays were first done, in the '60s, a lot of people were. The artificial elements the imaginary child, for example, in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" seemed baffling and unsettling.
With the passage of time, however, Albee is less intimidating. In a revival as powerful as Gerald Gutierrez' production of "A Delicate Balance," even the play's artifice is comprehensible and affecting.
When "Balance" first opened in 1966, the odd plot twist a couple who arrive at the door of their oldest friends fleeing some nameless terror caused much comment. Now it's almost harder for us to understand the relative tranquility of the two middle-aged WASPs than the unexplained fear that jeopardizes their equanimity.
The play begins with Agnes and Tobias taking it easy on a Friday night in their starchily traditional suburban home (magnificently designed by John Lee Beatty). The only irritant in their cozy life is Agnes' sister, an unrepentant alcoholic. Both sisters have acid tongues; Agnes' is the harsher because it is unleavened by compassion.
Suddenly they learn that their abrasive, fortyish daughter, on her fourth divorce, is coming home ("the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in"). Then their best friends arrive and want to take refuge permanently with them. These incursions force Agnes and Tobias to confront what they really mean by family, home, friendship and, yes, love.
By the end of the play, equilibrium has been restored, but at a price Agnes and Tobias can never take the world for granted again. Their world is now full of question marks.
The play depends enormously on the quality of the actors who do it, and the current cast is superb. As Agnes, Rosemary Harris has her customary reserve and elegance; few actresses could handle the eloquent verbiage that opens the evening as lucidly, naturally and musically as she does.
George Grizzard is triumphant as Tobias, especially in the scene where he agonizes about letting his troubled friends take up residence in his home.
It is no stretch for Elaine Stritch to play the caustic, bitchy sister, but she never sacrifices the character to get the laughs. It is one of her best portrayals. Mary Beth Hurt starts a little shriller than necessary as the angry daughter (well, I guess it was the '60s, when shrillness was in), but she becomes stronger as the play goes on.
Elizabeth Wilson and John Carter make the troubled friends very sympathetic.
Thirty years ago, the audience might have felt threatened by Albee's probing of the mindless, unconsidered civility of suburbia. The play no longer disturbs us. Mounted as flawlessly as it is here, it seems to have the stature and eloquence of a classic.
This morning drink a toast to the Lincoln Center Theater, to director Gerald Gutierrez, actors Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch, and most of all, playwright Edward Albee.
Albee's play "A Delicate Balance," which the Lincoln Center people revived sumptuously and persuasively at the Plymouth Theater last night, almost ranks as a discovery. You see it had arrived, the first time round in 1966, at an odd and unpropitious time.
Admittedly 30 years ago it won Albee the Pulitzer Prize - his first of three - but it was not altogether a popular choice. Walter Kerr on the New York Times was only one of the many critics, and other dispensers of cocktail-party chatter, who disparaged the play.
Consequently some suggested that its Pulitzer was a consolation token for Albee not being awarded the prize some years earlier for the vastly more popular "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Now, 30 years later we have this new, and I think markedly superior production, to help set the record right, and to establish the play, along with "All Over" and "Three Tall Women," as one of Albee's very best.
It is a play, like Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" that came to Broadway later the same season, which deals with concepts as realities in a sometimes disconcertingly naturalistic fashion.
Now such dramatic approaches are rather more familiar. Then audiences (and especially academic critics) tended to search for windy T.S. Eliot-like symbolism or Christopher Fry-style poetics, and even question the realistic probability of the action, rather than simply accept the play as it comes, reacting emotionally to its music and ideas. Certainly as realistic drama it is bizarre - yet not absurd in that cozy Ionesco way which critics were beginning to accept if not welcome.
It was the bizarre touch within the familiar. Pinter, in a phrase which unfortunately, finding it simplistic and over-used, he has long since repudiated, once termed it "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet."
If you query what the play is about, call it personal responsibility and generic, nameless terror, or the fear not so much of madness, but simply of losing one's moorings. The style of the writing is urbane, witty and seemingly casual.
We are introduced to a farcically dysfunctional, rich family of the country-club set. The father Tobias (Grizzard) is sixtyish, amiably vague and crammed with suppressed misgivings. His silvery wife, Agnes (Harris), is calm, accomplished and terminally mean.
The family also includes Agnes's sister Claire (Stritch), who is merely terminally drunk, has a vague yen for Tobias and does not find anonymity in alcohol.
The family quartet is completed by Julia (Mary Beth Hurt) the 36-year-old daughter of Tobias and Agnes, who unsuccessfully makes marriage her profession and is now returning to the nest, like a cuckoo too frequent, after the apparent failure of her fourth.
Breaking into this sourly cynical - and highly entertaining - picture of delicately balanced domestic misery have already come Tobias's best friend from childhood, Harry (John Carter), and his wife, Edna (Elizabeth Wilson), who would be Agnes's best friend were she to go in for that sort of thing.
Sitting peacefully at home, Edna was at her needlepoint and Harry was studying French, when they were overcome by fears as deadly and as stealthy as nerve gas. They instantly decamped, and moved in on Tobias and Agnes. As if by divine right, and apparently forever.
Such things do not happen even in badly-ordered houses. Of course not. Albee knows that. But he also realizes that there is a dream subtext to life (nothing to do with symbolism or any other literary conceit yet concerned with the unspoken, unspeakable imagination) and it is this that the play is plugged in on.
Tobias is forced to navigate between personal responsibility and personal duty - tribal calls of family and friendship bounce echoingly against the genetic inclinations of his personality.
It's a delicate play, and Gutierrez, unlike the earlier, merely workmanlike staging by Alan Schneider, helped by his magnificent cast, manages to explore every nuance, finding thrills in crooks and depths in crannies.
John Lee Beatty's setting - a handsome mini-mansion of Sixties affluence - Jane Greenwood's smoothly observed costumes and Pat Collins's studied lighting, provide just the right realistic dreamworld for Albee's savagely civilized nightmare, and the acting could not, in any respect, be bettered.
Harris, all cream and arsenic, and Stritch, all bile and tonic, have the more showy roles, but it is Grizzard, troubled, distant, amused into action, amazed into distress, who has to balance the play.
And like the brattish Hurt, the baffled Carter and the implacable Wilson, he is superb. A brilliant play, dazzingly acted. Lincoln Center once more puts Broadway at its feet and in its debt.
You may think you know the work of Edward Albee, but the chances are that you don't if you haven't seen the Lincoln Center Theater's immaculate, showy, very fine new production of "A Delicate Balance," which opened last night at the Plymouth Theater.
Be prepared for a surprise: an evening of theatrical fireworks that prompt astonished oohs and ahs, genuine laughter and a certain amount of delicious unease. "A Delicate Balance" is a drawing-room comedy that effectively uses the conventions of that long-archaic dramatic form, not to save but to destroy the atmosphere of WASP-y well-being in which drawing-room comedies once flourished.
This production has the impact of entirely new work, though it's technically a revival, the play having been first seen on Broadway in 1966. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, but the reviews were mixed, and the run was a modest 166 performances. If, like me, you missed the original production, you may have suspected through the years that the play, like the chic-looking 1973 film adaptation, must be a needlessly obscure, sonorous bore. Far from it.
As staged by Gerald Gutierrez and acted by a splendid cast headed by Rosemary Harris, Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard, "A Delicate Balance" is now revealed to be almost as ferocious and funny as -- and far more humane than -- "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" It makes "Three Tall Women," Mr. Albee's 1994 Pulitzer winner, look as bland and unthreatening as a Saturday night dinner at your average upper-middle-class country club.
"A Delicate Balance" is a horror story told in terms that exaggerate (to the point of sendup) the manners observed by such playwrights as Philip Barry, S. N. Behrman and W. Somerset Maugham in comedies written between the two world wars. The time is said to be the present, but it's a present at a slight remove from any time the rest of us know. The setting: the large, expensively wood-paneled library and living room of a grand old house in what could be Greenwich, Conn., or upper Westchester.
It's a Friday evening, and the long-married Agnes (Ms. Harris) and Tobias (Mr. Grizzard) are settling in for after-dinner drinks, a ritual, you realize, that's firmly established. She's not young, but she's uncommonly beautiful, possessing the determined serenity of a madonna dressed by Bendel's. He is handsome, perfectly dressed and, most of the time, quite content to listen and offer the occasional comment.
When the curtain goes up, she's cheerfully considering the possibility she might one day go mad. She talks well, too well, really, in great, paragraph-long, Henry Jamesian sentences, full of wandering asides that miraculously never lose sight of the original thought. She's eerie that way, and formidable. If Agnes is the only character on the Broadway stage today whose speeches are punctuated by semicolons, Ms. Harris may be the only actress so technically equipped that she can give those lines such vividly funny, spontaneous life.
Yet for all the small talk in this play, much of it having to do with people deciding what they'll drink and thanking whoever serves them, there's very little talk that's superfluous. "A Delicate Balance" is densely packed. Just beneath the placid, well-ordered surface of this household, there are histories of frigid marriages, infidelities, lost children (dead and unborn) and lifelong friendships based solely on convenience. Desperate battles are being fought that on this particular weekend erupt into the open.
First there's the problem with Claire (Ms. Stritch), Agnes's sister who lives with them. Claire is an aggressive, loudly self-proclaimed "drunk" (she sniffs at the term alcoholic) who finds what little delight she has in life by boozing, embarrassing Agnes and commiserating with Tobias, once briefly her lover. Then Julia (Mary Beth Hurt), Agnes and Tobias's only surviving child, calls to say that she's coming home after the collapse of yet another marriage, her fourth.
The last straw, though, is the arrival of Edna (Elizabeth Wilson) and Harry (John Carter), Agnes and Tobias's best friends. Unannounced, they turn up on the doorstep on this once-calm Friday evening and ask to be taken in. They had been sitting at home after dinner, Edna doing her needlepoint, Harry his French lessons, when they were suddenly overwhelmed with such a dark, indescribable terror that they dropped everything and fled to their friends for refuge.
Agnes and Tobias find such behavior a little odd, maybe even seriously eccentric, but what are friends for? After all, it's only for one night. They welcome Edna and Harry who, from the moment of their appearance, begin to act as if they belonged there. The next day they announce that they're moving in permanently.
What is this terror? It's a sudden loss of purpose and all sense of necessity: aimlessness made manifest. It's something to which the spawn of America's white Anglo-Saxon Protestant pioneers, at least the offspring of the old-money families, have been especially susceptible as the country has continued to reinvent itself without their patrician help.
Agnes recognizes it as a kind of plague. So does Claire. She's someone who, having survived it, has become immune. Julia, self-centered and still spoiled rotten as she approaches 40, couldn't care less about plagues. She's furious that Edna and Harry are in her old room. Tobias thinks less about the plague than about its two victims. He wants to do the right thing even if it destroys his family.
Mr. Gutierrez and the exquisitely gifted members of the cast locate the desperate humanity and brutal humor within Mr. Albee's text. That can't be easy. The elegantly mannered dialogue demands a kind of bifocal understanding by the actors, who must not only mean what they say but also see that "A Delicate Balance" is not drawing-room nonsense. There are life-and-death games being played here. "We're not a communal nation, dear," Claire tells Julia at one point, explaining that we give but don't share, are outgoing without being friendly.
That's a chilly sort of epiphany, but there's so much life in this production you won't be put off.
Ms. Harris is spectacular as a perfectly mannered, suburban frontier woman fighting for her family, hanging onto her existence by her wits and her fingernails. Ms. Stritch gives another one of those performances-of-a-career in a career already stuffed with them. The fur flies when she's onstage, but she gets as good as she gives, particularly in her scenes with Ms. Harris and the admirable Ms. Hurt. Mr. Grizzard is all dozy rectitude until cornered, when he, too, explodes. As the grotesquely boring best friends, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Carter manage to be simultaneously pathetic and menacing. You can't ask for more.
Even John Lee Beatty's handsome, cavernous set astonishes. The high-ceilinged living-room-library occupies the center of the stage, but it's so designed that we see the adjacent halls and suggestions of the spotlessly clean emptiness of the rooms beyond. At first you think you might want to live in it. By the end of the performance, it seems as spooky and barren as a Beckett landscape.
Love and isolation - mirror images of the human condition and favorite themes of '50s and '60s drama - haunt Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" without ever spooking the audience in the manner of, say Harold Pinter. As Gerald Gutierrez's exquisite revival for Lincoln Center Theater at the Plymouth Theater amply demonstrates, here are plenty of laughs to be found at the edge of the abyss.
"Balance," which won Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes to date, opens as an elegant, brittle drawing-room comedy. Agnes (Rosemary Harris) and Tobias (George Grizzard) are fixing postprandial drinks and discussing her live-in sister Claire (Elaine Stritch), a drunk, and their 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Mary Beth Hurt), returning to this lavishly appointed suburban manse after the breakup of her fourth marriage.
Agnes and Tobias -- she as calculatingly meticulous as he is bemusedly off-the-cuff -- have the easy intimacy of a couple who long ago stopped sharing a bed, who long ago stopped liking each other, let alone loving each other. Yet they persist in a kind of emotional demilitarized zone that has its satisfactions. They have a common history that includes a son who died in childhood, along with the unresolved grieving over never having replaced him.
Claire has the dramatist's conceit of growing more lucid the drunker she gets -- witness her name. When she challenges Tobias to name anything he has in common with his best friend, Tobias draws a blank. When that friend, Harry (John Carter), and his wife, Edna (Elizabeth Wilson), show up that night, driven out of their home by some undefined "terror," notions of friendship, love and loyalty are all put through the wringer. That Harry and Edna move into Julia's bedroom just as she, too, arrives, sends the weekend into overdrive.
Articulate but cool and smugly self-congratulatory, Agnes is a tough role, and Harris is utterly regal playing her, revealing the not-so-secret losses and humiliations that have brought Agnes to this state. Swanlike and serenely radiant, Harris reveals myriad emotional shadings with an astounding economy of gesture and inflection, a marvel to observe.
Equally marvelous is Stritch, with a meatier role than her recent foray as Parthy in "Show Boat." To watch her succumb to the vast amounts of alcohol Claire ingests, folding and refolding her legs, slipping -- no, oozing -- onto the floor, her face crumpling like a paper bag, is to witness a different but equally winning kind of thespian expertise. It's a master class up there.
Harris and Stritch are solidly partnered. Grizzard, an old Albee hand, is gruffly befuddled by the seeming complexity of it all, whether recounting the tale of a cat who betrayed his affection and paid for it with his life, or, in the play's nearly heartbreaking final scene, when he begs Harry and Edna not to leave. Carter's Harry recalls Jack Lemmon as a man nearly frozen with fear, while Wilson has her own kind of regality as a suburban matron with an expanded sense of entitlement, to say the least.
Only Hurt's shrill, over-the-top Julia seems at odds with Gutierrez's staging , which is as sleek and polished as the oak paneling in John Lee Beatty's glorious set, with its leather-bound books and damask-covered sofa (so big, in fact, you can't help wondering why such a place wouldn't have enough bedrooms to go around). Jane Greenwood's costumes are perfect, and the first two acts are beautifully lit by Pat Collins. One wonders, however, about the choice of bathing the final, early morning scene, in a harsh, fluorescent glare.
Gutierrez draws a lot of laughs out of "A Delicate Balance," not all of them appropriate. It is, after all, a play in which Tobias' ideas of love and friendship are revealed as illusory, about "the souring side of love," at least until "memory takes over and corrects fact," as Claire says. The production lacks that defining moment in which a door is opened, however briefly, to reveal something of the terror Harry and Edna are running from, and which threatens the rest of this cozy world.
Yet somehow that seems a minor point in the face of such cherishable work. Coming off the smashing success of last year's revival of "The Heiress," Lincoln Center Theater has gorgeously restored another important play to the repertory.