Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 20, 2014
A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto. Costume Design by Ann Roth. Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound Design by Scott Lehrer. Cast: Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan, Bob Balaban, Clare Higgins, Martha Plimpton.
Everything in Pam MacKinnon’s painfully handsome production points to this, from the imposing, angular walls of Santo Loquasto’s stunning but imposing drawing-room set to Ann Roth’s class-defining and class-defying costumes, and Brian MacDevitt’s unforgiving lights. But of all the bull’s-eye–hitting elements — and there are many — perhaps none comes closer to capturing the spirit of glittering doom than its chief avatar, Glenn Close.
Okay, okay. If you want to get technical, it would actually be Close’s character, Agnes: the upper-middle-age woman at the center of a surprise maelstrom of discontent about the current state of marriage in her friends’ and family’s lives. But in letting us see how Agnes is at once crisply pristine and brutal, all while maintaining a near-royal posture and measured calm that belie the idea that the universe is crumbling around her, Close shows us both how we should approach our own relationship mortality — and why doing so is the most dangerous action one can perform.
Her husband, Tobias, is confronted with many of the same challenges, but has not yet reached the same state of acceptance nirvana. And as portrayed by John Lithgow, in a performance of serene intelligence, Tobias is being worn down to the marrow by that fact. He’s known his own share of loss and rejection, but never of the scope of the three-pronged full-frontal assault to his way of being he is now — and, is growing increasingly unable to cope with the spiritual attacks from Agnes’s live-in-drunk sister Claire (Lindsay Duncan), his daughter Julia (Martha Plimpton) wading through her fourth divorce, or family friends Harry and Edna (Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins) deciding to escape an undescribed terror by moving in with Tobias and Agnes permanently.
As A Delicate Balance unfolds, that terror becomes more tangible for everyone, and we start seeing just how devastated the landscape of these people’s lives is. Close finds the most, and the most interesting, levels to this, with her sparkling, perfectly poised exterior masking a darkness that’s just as captivating — and corrosive. But Lithgow is nearly as effective at demonstrating the impact on a person’s psyche of experiencing one’s existence falling apart: Over the course of more than two hours, he transforms from a collected and controlled adult into a sobbing wreck who refuses to acknowledge how his choices factor into his own destiny.
Powerful as Lithgow is, he’s part of a fine ensemble that also finds Duncan giving a blithe, carefree spin on Claire that brands her connection to Agnes within the same outward repudiation of the world’s crippling concerns (she takes extravagant pains to explain how, despite drinking constantly, she’s not really an alcoholic); Plimpton unlocking every drop of youthful optimism within Julia, which can then be savaged by the realities in which she’s trapped; and Higgins and Balaban, who are terrific in presenting the smiling passive-aggressiveness that forces everyone out of their comfort zone.
MacKinnon puts to excellent use her Tony-winning experience as director of the last revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, two years ago. Just as there, she effects a careful balance between the series and the comedic, keeping the laughs plentiful but contained, and underlining every scene with the sobering sense that, past a certain point, tragedy is always a heartbeat, or a gasped breath, away and that no one is immune from the ravages of time and bad decisions, or the countless ways we lie to ourselves about them.
This has always been golden territory for Albee, and A Delicate Balance, which won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was revived on Broadway to great acclaim 18 years ago, continues to stand as one of his best-realized and most affecting works. If Close is the most glowing representation of the tangled contradictions that have always identified Albee, and that are so elemental to this play, her cast mates and MacKinnon offer a wealth of reasons to revisit it or take the bracing plunge for the first time. Denial and loss may be inescapable here, and you’re unlikely to emerge from the Golden unchanged, but this revival frequently echoes its own themes by feeling from start to finish like one where you’ll only arrive at the best by surviving, and conquering, the worst.