Albee Damned

Photo by Christofer GrossThe delicate balance referred to in Edward Albee's play could be the fine lines between sanity and madness, love and hatred, illusion and reality, substance and superficiality, all of the above, none of the above. But after watching South Coast Repertory's (SCR) ravishing, well-appointed production of Albee's 1966 play, the delicate balance I found myself pondering was different from a thematic kind. It's the exceptionally thin line between hewing to a playwright's intent and subverting it.

Director Martin Benson's production of Albee's drama about a family forced to recognize its own emptiness is, on many counts, a wonder to behold. Thomas Bunderwitz's richly detailed and portentous scenic design is one of the most effective I've seen on an SCR stage in a long time. While the comfortable household furnishings suggest upper middle-class sense and sensibilities, the stage and the ceiling of the room where the action occurs are sharply angled, creating a kind of visual tension that serves as a fitting commentary on the unhinged people at the play's center.

And the star-studded cast assembled by Benson gives an emotional resonance and human dimension often missing from Albee's play. This production lucidly captures Albee's unique brilliance: his ability to bring highly stylized language to a traditionally constructed play.

It's also bitingly funny. Many productions of A Delicate Balancetreat Albee as if he's returned from the mountaintop carrying twin tablets of dramaturgical law; they're wearily bleak and self-important. This production is a joy.

Maybe too enjoyable. As good as it is on so many levels, the production lacks edge. A Delicate Balance blends traditional drawing-room comedy with existential terror—as if Noel Coward fell asleep at the playwrighting switch and Samuel Beckett took over. This production leans too much toward Coward. Albee's laceration of middle-class materialism and morality doesn't cut as deeply as it should; his poison doesn't even sting, let alone kill.

In A Delicate Balance, Albee is after the hypocrisy of the American family. As he himself has said, this is a play about people who have come to the end of their lives only to realize they haven't really lived.

Tobias (a keenly emasculated Nicholas Hormann) and Agnes (the always strong Linda Gehringer) are surrounded by luxury—servants in the kitchen, a fully stocked liquor cabinet—but they're hollow, unable to truly love or feel connected to anything. The household's delicate equilibrium is upset by Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire (a wickedly funny Kandis Chappell) and the return of daughter Julie (a wickedly spoiled Rene Augesen), reeling from her fourth shattered marriage. But the unexpected intrusion of best friends is the real trigger in the domestic collapse; forced from their home by nameless terror, Edna and Harry arrive unannounced at Tobias and Agnes' doorstep. And then, as the TV listings say, the fun begins.

An interesting aspect of this play is that the characters are woefully undeveloped: they don't have surnames; we don't know where they live, what they do for a living, where they've met. Their nebulousness isn't an oversight; it's an indication that Albee isn't concerned with attacking one family's inadequacies and self-deceptions, but rather the entire institution of the family—the basic unit, we've been led to believe, of American morality.

All of that exists in this finely rendered production, but there are subtle indications that Benson and Co. aren't quite ready to sing Albee's darker notes.

Two examples, one very minor, the other more problematic: Albee, a left-leaning homosexual artist who remains extremely pissed about the state of American theater and American politics, told the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks ago that he would demand SCR change one line in his play: rather than a passing reference to Republicans being as “dull” as ever, Albee wanted it to read that Republicans are as “brutal” as ever.

The line remains unchanged in this production. Yes, it's minor, but Albee's insistence—and SCR's apparent resistance—make one wonder if SCR's creative team is unwilling to sink its fangs too deeply into the well-manicured hands that feed it so well.

A more problematic change is the tone of the play's ending. With the main conflict resolved, it falls on Agnes to deliver this very talky play's final speech. Throughout the play, it's Agnes' precise, complicated use of language that illustrates her fervent need for control in order to compensate for her submerged neurosis. But at this production's end, her insecurity has vanished. Agnes delivers her purple speech—about the wonder of daylight and beginning the day anew—without a trace of weariness or irony. It really does feel as if she has survived this crucible of terror and is ready to truly tackle the day and not just put on a brave face. We're led to believe that the sun always rises, the tide always comes in and every cloud has a silver lining.

It's laudable to offer some small measure of hope after a two-and-a-half hour exercise in bitterness. But what makes Albee such a provocative playwright is his unyielding assault. That's one reason, in the words of director Harold Clurman, that people either view Albee “with defiant admiration or determined denunciation.” If there is any trace of genuine humanitarianism in Albee's work, it's more of a wake up call: take stock of your life and realize what it's becoming.

You can find that in this production, but the ending makes it feel more like a friendly pat on the back—buck up, boyo; it's never too late to change. Far more interesting—and perhaps closer to Albee's intent—would be an ending that felt like a slap in the face. Less Noel Coward, and more Samuel Beckett.

A Delicate Balance at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 11. $18-$49.

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