A Delicate Balance
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James Macdonald
Almeida Theatre, London
Lucy Cohu — Julia
Diana Hardcastle — Edna
Ian McElhinney — Harry
Tim Piggott-Smith — Tobias
Imelda Staunton — Claire
Penelope Wilton — Agnes
Shaken and stirred. The mid-century denizens in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance must have seemed immortal at the time, 1966, when the play was premiered. They are Dorothy Parker’s gin-soaked contemporaries, morphing into Stephen Sondheim’s ladies who lunch. Along with their Wall Street-country club husbands, they prowled the veldt from Westchester to the Upper East Side, confident that they were at the top of the food chain, putting down stakes at a private table at “21” and needing only a five-to-one martini in their canteens, seven-to-one if the terrain got rocky. Brought back as the cast of the hit retro TV series, Mad Men, this New York City type arouses nostalgia, but Albee experienced the real thing—and his reaction was pitiless.
A Delicate Balance, ending its revival at the Almeida Theatre in Islington—they’ve made a specialty of mounting Albee’s plays recently—is the most poisonous of poison pen letters. The setting for its three acts is the same suburban living room, viewed from Friday night to Sunday morning, a lost weekend for six souls that Albee has gleefully consigned to damnation. The plot is as neat and elegant as a Noel Coward lawn party. One middle-aged couple, Agnes and Tobias, lubricate their empty existence by drinking and bickering in ritualistic fashion. As a witty, bitter Greek chorus an alcoholic sister named Claire has moved in. She dips every word in curare before firing it. Tempers fray to the point that the seven-to-one martini is definitely required, but the tension doubles when the couple’s grown daughter, Julia, unexpectedly returns as an escapee from her fourth failed marriage.
The same setup could be The Philadelphia Story in its stylized banter (Katherine Hepburn once appeared as Agnes in a taped public television performance) assuming that every charming character is exchanged for a glib, besotted troll. The spring for action would appear to be Julia’s distraught arrival, yet something stranger intervenes. The best friends of Agnes and Tobis, a wan couple named Harry and Edna, drop in uninvited. They are uneasily welcomed; when politeness allows, they are asked why they’ve come. “Because we’re frightened,” says Harry as Edna bursts into terrified sobs. What scares them has no rational explanation. Albee, who began as an absurdist with existential flavoring, has invented a ploy whereby a meaningless world begins to implode—the fear they feel is well deserved, not empathetically understood.
The play unfolds as a Sartrean riff on The Man Who Came to Dinner, as Edna and Harry move in, acting so entitled that Julia, who is loosely sutured to begin with, feels displaced. She goes into hysterics, pulls out her fahter’s gun, and reverts to infantile neediness. This embarrassing display occasions only barbed lashes of the quip from her mother, the domineering Agnes, along with mounting exasperation that the delicate balance of the household has been jarred. In such a stunted atmosphere, anybody’s distress registers about as deeply as the cook serving Hollandaise sauce when she was specifically told that lamb chops require Bearnaise. For his part, the passive Tobias dithers and stutters, unable to act or to feel except in jerky, rudimentary ways—we subsequently learn that both men are past sexual participation with their wives, who react through contemptuous resignation mixed with a refresher on the martini front.
As a witness to this clockwork mechanism, I had my doubts as to whether Albee had written a great play, even though the London critics thought so. A Delicate Balance won him his first of three Pulitzer Prizes in 1967. There can be no complaints about the acting. For most of the play Penelope Wilton’s Agnes serves as matriarch, top sergeant, and gatekeeper of social propriety, all of it a disguise for deep-dyed misery. As the alcoholic Claire, Imelda Staunton can be forgiven for over-egging her abrasive American accent since she is full of venomous pep. Julia, as portrayed by Lucy Cohu, is shrieky and childish, a walking revenge against her parents. The men are less inclined to chew the rug, with Tim Pigott-Smith managing to hide his eventual emotional collapse so well during the first two acts that he steals the show through quiet despair. Director James Macdonald guides the proceedings unobtrusively, which is a compliment given the complex weave of talk and behavior.
Albee had already mined verbal domestic violence in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to iconic effect, and when he returns to the well of spleen for a second dose, one’s attention is drawn away from the play toward the playwright. What are his motives, exactly? One feels the driving force must be pure animus with its roots in autobiography. Albee’s childhood contained two fateful ingredients after he was adopted by a wealthy family in Westchester County at the age of two weeks. His adoptive father was the heir to a chain of vaudeville theaters; his adoptive mother was ferociously intent on raising Edward to fit into their elite social circle. But if this struck him as loathsome beyond endurance, does Albee have the right to assassinate his parents twice?
Witty and nimble as A Delicate Balance is, I felt that the playwright had committed the sin of hating his characters, fixing the game against them. Therefore, when he shows no mercy, it feels unfair. The writer is God so far as his fictional world is concerned, and it’s a petty God who peoples creation with venal losers. A certain frigid haughtiness (readily observed in Albee when he gives interviews; his mother succeeded in molding his mannerisms after all) was purified by the scalding viciousness between George and Martha in Virginia Woolf. Here, it isn’t. A disdainful hauteur infiltrates A Delicate Balance. Is that actually superior to the attitudes of the characters Albee has trapped in amber? My mind kept returning to bright and brittle Thirties comedies because this play is just as weightless. There is also a child’s exaggerated view of adults as outsized monsters when we know, outside the precincts of the drama, that they are no worse than dismal stereotypes.
What Albee has working for him, however, is that the stereotype was more potent back then. In addition, I think that British audiences swallow Agnes’ final speech, as Sunday dawns on emotional wreckage, that they must carry on anyway. The tradition of pungent verbal combat in this country must also help. In any event, Albee is being given this year’s prestigious medal at the Macdowell Colony, with Mike Nichols as presenter and glorifier—he, of course, directed the film version of Virginia Woolf. The tribute goes to a writer who has maintained his own delicate balance between substance and style. Albee’s literary betters, particularly T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett, deserve a chunk of the medal. On second thought, such splendid animus thoroughly entertained the audience. For me, after seeing Virginia Woolf’s duel in a shark tank, the spectacle of the same fish flopping around on dry land was a bit anticlimactic.