A Delicate Balance
Also see Bob's review of Bad Dates
Director David Wassilak is fearlessly faithful to his actors and their material, letting us gaze upon Agnes and her husband Tobias (Larry Dell) until they seem slightly bizarre in their natural habitat: she, in her straight blond hair and golden head-band; he in his whimsical anisette, as she reflects on the misfortunes of all around them. Humor penetrates their elegant living room like x-rays from an unseen chamber in the first act where, eventually, Tobias will wage war on the world as it is. Agnes, however, remains like permafrost, finely etching wry observations and darkest pathos on her icy facade.
Fortunately, Mr. Albee has given Agnes a delightful doppelganger in the form of Claire, her tottering alcoholic sister, to make a party of any painfulness. Tamara Kenny may seem like nothing more than a figment of Tobias' imagination in the role, in her first appearance, thanks to this Tobias' vaguely flummoxed air. She appears just as Agnes exits, a fascinating Miss Hyde to Agnes' Dr. Jekyll, and seeming to be everything that Agnes is not. With the strange mood established well-beforehand, this duality borders on the Hitchcockian, between the frosty blonde and dangerous brunette. But, in spite of Claire's talk of murder, they are far too valuable a matched set to be broken up.
It's only in act two that Ms. Byers' stiff upper lip threatens to explode like the Hoover Dam, billowing for a microsecond over all the monkeys in her family tree. The 'delicate balance' of domestic tranquility begins to lumber off kilter when the couple's four-times-married daughter (Sarah Cannon) returns, narrowly preceded by their friends and neighbors, Harry and Edna (Greg Johnston and Penny Kols). That pair of famously overwrought characters, fleeing a plague of nameless terror, moves in like Mayflower passengers among the unwary Indians, suggesting another dour American history lesson from Mr. Albee: from 1966, just three years after his George and Martha became the father and mother of American drama.
Ms. Cannon as Julia is hilarious in her outsider's normalcy, deflating her parents when she first boomerangs home, and then wonderfully comical when the neighbors usurp her bedroom. Ms. Kols as Edna rises to glorious heights in the subtle art of parody, her face a mask twisted by pain or sneering. Mr. Johnston as Harry is a matryoshka doll of self-doubt and embarrassment: with one more layer left to be revealed, and then another and another (sometimes all in the same sentence). Too bad there's no call for chubby, middle-aged Hamlets. He'd be a grand one.
Up to the breaking point, Ms. Byers paints a portrait of a woman who privately knows that her confidence is failing her, groping for delicacy, with the slightest choked pause before she finishes her sentences, and gamely resurrecting her own country club sociability, no matter the odds against her. As her sister, ever the opposite, Ms. Kenny is seductively languid and wind-blown, as if she were on a permanent cliff-side picnic, always laughing on the edge of the abyss.
Ultimately, it's Tobias who gets our sympathy, for demanding none of it. Mr. Dell's final explosion is a dizzying spectacle of crazed heartbreak. Though he spends most of the three-act play listening quietly, you might detect the traces of creeping paralysis in the man, until he's had enough of everyone else trying to convince him of man's essential powerlessness.
An immaculate production, A Delicate Balance is the first show at the fashionable storefront Gaslight Theatre, on a very pleasant side-street just south of the old Gaslight Square nightclub district. The play's amazing program is jammed full of nostalgic material from that magical part of town, where so many young entertainers left their mark in the 1960s, like Barbra Streisand, Lenny Bruce, and Nichols and May. It's nice to see the old neighborhood getting lucky all over again.
For more information, call (314) 458-2978 or visit them online at www.stlas.org. Through November 4, 2007, at 385 North Boyle Ave., three blocks north of Lindell Blvd. Valet parking available.
*Member, United Scenic Artists