Monday, February 11, 2013

theatre review A DELICATE BALANCE, McCarter Theatre, February 2

Much like the movie The Queen of Versailles that I just reviewed, Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize winning play A Delicate Balance, which is receiving a lovely production at the McCarter Theatre this month, has at its center a wealthy family that isn't immune to the fates of those less well off.  But unlike the Siegel family in the Versailles film, this family isn't impacted by financial issues but by the sheer terror that waits in the darkness of every one's life.  A terror that affects even an Upper Class family.

The fact that the "terror" that is mentioned in the play is never actually specified makes this drama into something even greater then if it was spelled out.  You see, there is just something out there that forces the best friends of the main couple of the play to show up on their doorstep one night, declare that they are "frightened" and move in as if their friend's house was their own.

On the surface this may seem like a somewhat forced and ludicrous plot point, but in the skilled hands of Albie he turns the entire element of the unknown terror as well as the other things that haunt and trouble us all into an interesting study of the modern family.   This study includes the notion that we all have various "rights" in our relationships with each other and "roles" that we all must live within.  Various other themes are present including the idea that we will all eventually start to lose our minds, how the death of a child can affect the parents in completely different ways, how siblings and children take a toll on a family and how the events of the past never go away but combine with other things to make every day an uneasy existence for those involved.  When combined with the element of the unknown terror and an ongoing consumption of alcohol by all of the characters, Albie creates a play that is both unsettling and thought provoking.

Kathleen Chalfant and John Glover
Agnes and Toby are an upper middle class married couple in their late fifties who try to maintain the balance in their home.  A home where they are always dressed up as if they are ready to host a cocktail party at any time but also prepared for the arrival of unexpected guests.  Agnes' sister Clare lives with them, and the two sisters are polar opposites with Agnes preferring order and control and Clare basically saying whatever she wants to and someone who couldn't be bothered with social moors.  Clare is also a self stated "drunk" not an alcoholic but a drunk.  Harry and Edna are the friends of Agnes and Toby who show up on their doorstep, declare they are scared and terrified and move in with them at the same time that their daughter Julia is coming back home to stay after the end of her fourth marriage.  The unexpected house guests upset the balance of Agnes and Toby's house and the already strained relationship between Agnes, Toby and Clare.

Direction by Emily Mann is perfect with a lovely balance between drama and comedy that this play requires.  Mann also gets an impressively nuanced and layered performance from John Glover that includes a riveting story about his childhood cat who stopped liking him and what he does to the cat because of that as well as a third act performance where he not only puts his cards on the table about the way he feels about his relationship with his friends but also the pain from when he gets the truth about how Harry really feels about him.   Kathleen Chalfant at Agnes is also perfect in her delivery of the woman who is trying desperately to keep the balance within her household and her life even while confronted with her ever present sister and the un-invited visitors.  Agnes is a hard part to play since it requires an almost constant sternness but Chalfant pulls it off easily.

The part of Clare is definitely the livelier of the parts in the play and Penny Fuller is having a grand time playing it.  She easily gets across the part of a lady who has seen it all but has nothing to show for her experiences since she is living with her sister and brother in law now.  While she has good relationships with her family she also is always at odds with her sister and has a secret about her brother in law that she seems ready to reveal at any time.  Fuller perfectly captures the drunken lady who is quick witted, always ready to fight, speaks her mind but is also extremely lonely and desperately needs the people in her life to keep her balanced.

The rest of the cast is fine with Roberta Maxwell especially good as Edna.  Maxwell walks the balance between the frightened lady and the woman with "rights" in her friend's house perfectly.  James A. Stephens is Harry and Francesca Faridany is Julia and they are both fine in the parts.

Some other interesting observations about this play:  The way that Harry and Edna just assume they have rights in the house, even more so than Julia due to the fact that they are her godparents, and the way that Edna speaks to Julia easily portrays the element of rude behavior that happens when one claims a perceived role that has rights that come with it.  While Clare is the so called "drunk" of the group, just about everyone else drinks just as much if not more then Clare does.  Also, the fact that the play ends with a similar conversation between Agnes and Toby that we heard in the beginning of the play makes you believe that the events of the play aren't over, that they will be repeated again and again and that the "terror" that is out there will never go away.

John Glover, Penny Fuller, Kathleen Chalfant,
Roberta Maxwell and James A. Stephens
This production is top-notch all around, from the performances, the direction from Mann and the creative elements including a perfectly designed set by Daniel Ostling where everything is balanced and in its place. And while it might not match the unforgettable Broadway revival in 1996 with Rosemary Harris and George Grizzard as Agnes and Toby and Elaine Stritch as Clare, it comes pretty close.

Is the terror of the play the fear when a couple realizes after being together for so many years that they have nothing left but an emptiness between them?  An emptiness that Agnes and Toby fill up with the constant presence of Clare, their friends, their daughter and the never absent alcohol?  Is this what Harry and Edna saw before them one evening that forced them to pack up and come to live with Agnes and Toby?  Albie isn't exactly clear, and I like that he isn't clear as there are plenty of themes and situations happening in A Delicate Balance to make you think.  And as much as we all want to believe that we will never end up like any of the characters in this play, we all also know that deep down we just might, and that is the scariest part of all.

A Delicate Balance runs through this coming weekend, February 17th.

McCarter Website

Scenes from this production


  1. Albie isn't exactly clear, and I like that he isn't clear as there are plenty of themes and situations happening in A Delicate Balance to make you think.

  2. Is this what Harry and Edna saw before them one evening that forced them to pack up and come to live with Agnes and Toby?

  3. Is this what Harry and Edna saw before them one evening that forced them to pack up and come to live with Agnes and Toby..