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Review

'Delicate Balance' teeters slightly but always fascinates

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
'A Delicate Balance' on Broadway may teeter a bit a times, but virtuoso acting and staging set thing right

The setting for Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" is "the living room of a large and well-appointed suburban home," and scenic designer Santo Loquasto has conjured the scene so sumptuously at Broadway's Golden Theatre that you can practically hear the tennis balls being hit at the country club down the road.

Director Pam MacKinnon, who won a Tony for her staging of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," has paid exquisite attention to surface detail in her handsome revival starring Glenn Close and John Lithgow. But then, refined upholstery and the correct shade of paint, to say nothing of an exquisitely arranged bar, are crucial in a play about upper-class characters who have buried the truth of their lives under expensive trappings.

Part drawing-room comedy, part existentialist drama, "A Delicate Balance" blends Noël Coward with Samuel Beckett in a work that bears all the hallmarks of Albee's central preoccupations as an artist: the domestic rancor inflamed by booze, the free-flowing anxiety that can't be pinned down, the lost child that has created a marital vacuum and the curiously fussy language that bounces between comic attack and philosophical conjecture.

Whether this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, first done on Broadway in 1966, represents the author at his best remains an open question. "A Delicate Balance" has neither the savage vigor of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" nor the stylistic ingenuity of "Three Tall Women."

The work is overextended, not always dramatically convincing and sometimes too knowingly articulated. Yet there's something intriguing about its puzzling mix of realism and absurdism, which are ultimately reconciled in the dazzling display of Albee's fearless theatricality.

Form and content are not at variance here: The play's unsettled stylistic equilibrium matches the characters' domestic situation, which has been thrown into disorder by a confluence of circumstances.

Julia (Martha Plimpton), the only daughter of Agnes (Close) and Tobias (Lithgow), has called to say that she is returning home after yet another failed marriage. Claire (Lindsay Duncan), Agnes' unmarried sister who lives at the house, has started drinking again — and when she drinks, she talks, saying all those things that are supposed to remain unsaid in a home where holding one's liquor is considered a solemn duty.

Adding to the tumult, Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins), best friends of Tobias and Agnes, arrive seeking sanctuary because suddenly and inexplicably they became frightened. "There was nothing … but we were very scared," Harry explains, not quite able to comprehend that it was precisely the nothingness that was so terrifying.

Julia, up in arms that her room has been taken over by her parents' friends, resorts to childish tantrums. Agnes seethes at her sister's drunken mischief. Tobias, genially ineffectual as he pours himself and Claire another drink, questions whether he has any fellow feeling left in him.

The dramatic setup can seem like a vintage New Yorker cartoon shot through with Pinteresque menace. And MacKinnon's production is stunningly pictorial, a series of artful tableaux coordinating Loquasto's scenic design with Ann Roth's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's shimmering lighting. (The sunrise effects MacDevitt manufactures are pure visual poetry.)

This is an ensemble effort, with no one performer stealing the show as Elaine Stritch did when she played Claire in the 1996 Lincoln Center Theatre revival. The performances are all sharp — Higgins' Edna is especially crisp — but they're still coalescing. This is the kind of work that will deepen over time.

As Agnes, the matriarch who considers herself the "fulcrum" of this household's delicate balance, Close is all patrician glamour and icy control. Dressed as though she were sitting for a portrait by a modern-day Ingres, she is a formidable presence but not a heartless one. Her portrayal reveals the heavy burden Agnes has been carrying of keeping her family — and her own psyche — intact.

Lithgow's Tobias is content to dodder on the margins, but when he's forced by Agnes to assume responsibility as head of the house, he summons the necessary strength. Estranged from his wife's bed since the death of their son, Tobias has been just as long estranged from himself. Lithgow movingly depicts the panicked struggle of a man who realizes that he's in danger of being buried alive.

As Claire, Duncan acts with her usual éclat, but her performance is distinguished for being so grounded in the collective drama. When she balances a glass on her forehead while lying on the floor, it's not a scene-stealing tactic but a display of the exhaustion behind her character's sloppy freedom.

Plimpton plays Julia like a fierce former debutante, a woman rapidly growing older yet ever the insufficiently nurtured child. Balaban has that look of a banker who has commuted for the last time from Grand Central Station and now just wants to curl up in the suburbs for the rest of his stultifying days.

If this production of "A Delicate Balance" teeters unsteadily at moments, it remains always fascinating to behold. The pleasure lies less in the play's profundity than in its carefully coordinated staginess. Following Albee script to the letter, this crew acts out with uncommon virtuosity.

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