In his 1996 “non-reconsideration” of A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee writes that his play “concerns, as it always has … the rigidity and ultimate paralysis which afflicts those who settle in too easily, waking up one day to discover that all the choices they have avoided no longer give them any freedom of choice, and that what choices they do have left are beside the point.” That’s trademark Albee — straightforward, unsentimental — but things aren’t quite as clear-cut for the actors tasked with inhabiting the world of the play, which opens November 20. Agnes, played by Glenn Close, and Tobias, played by John Lithgow, find their upper-middle-class Wasp equilibrium upended by three guests: their daughter, Julia, and their friends Edna and Harry, the last two driven from their own home by an unspecified “terror.” “Albee teases both the audience and the actors with withheld information,” says Lithgow. There’s also Albee’s language, which veers from meandering mini-monologues to staccato snaps. “It’s very tricky,” says Close — returning to Broadway after a 20-year absence. “We’re all feeling that if you forget one word, it can have a domino effect. It’s not easy dialogue to leap back into. It’s a piece of literature.”
“I thought it would be the most fun to be with an ensemble of actors, rather than in some big-star vehicle,” Close says of her decision to join the play. “Having grown up in Greenwich, Connecticut — the play is basically that kind of world.” The key to playing Agnes has been “to find where I can love her; sympathize with her so I can do her justice. The pitfall for Agnes is that she can be just a controlling woman, and I’d like to try to have the audience understand that she’s more than that.” Physical details have helped Close get deeper into her character. “Hair is … a lot!” she says with a laugh. “I think we’ve come to using a wig with a hair band. And I know these women—these women who wear hair bands. It’s perfect for Agnes.”
Lithgow is certainly the Albee vet of the group: At 23, he served as American-dialect coach for the British premiere of the play, and Albee directed him as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He’s been asked to play Tobias a few times before. “There’s a beautiful quote from Edward — he refers to Tobias as ‘retired in every sense,’ ” Lithgow says. “The great danger is to play him as a weakling and a fool. But he’s not stupid, and he’s not a fool. He’s simply retired.” Lithgow is still adjusting to the Albee realm after a summer of Shakespeare. “My main concern is vocal strength,” he says. “I just played King Lear, so it shouldn’t worry me, but it’s a different kind of vocal output. I have to give it all I’ve got.”
To get to the heart of Harry — who, until a third-act showdown with Tobias, has very few lines (“With the play, the director, and the cast, I’d be happy to just move scenery”) — the Ur–character actor zeroed in on the initial description in the script of the man as “gruff.” “I thought to myself, Well, I’m not very gruff. What does gruff mean?” Balaban says. “In this case, I think it means that he’s very covered up. He’s not great with language. For me, it was about developing someone who has an underneath to him but doesn’t show it very much.”
The veteran London stage actress just finished a stint as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; now she plays the considerably quieter Edna. She views the “terror” that drives Edna and Harry from their home as existential. “It’s a terror of, ‘Who the hell are you? Are you welcoming? Are you generous? Would you help people as you’d like to be helped when in crisis?’ And, of course, the answer is a resounding no.”
Though she plays Agnes’s alcoholic “truth-teller” sister Claire, don’t expect to see Duncan hamming it up onstage. “I think Albee has written everything about her just in what she says and does,” she says. “It doesn’t need embellishing with drunk-acting.” She was thrilled to rehearse in a room featuring a dummy set — complete with staircase, furniture, “and the bar, which is essential — it’s almost a character.”
For her first “foray into Albee-land,” Plimpton plays Julia, Agnes and Tobias’s daughter who comes home after her fourth failed marriage. “It’s tempting to be shrill with Julia. So many of her lines are written in all capital letters — and there are lots of exclamation points,” she says. “I mean, she’s a brat. It’s just whether or not she’s an interesting brat — it’s my job to figure that out.” Navigating the plot’s ambiguities is a work-in-progress. “There are things that may never make sense to me as we proceed,” she acknowledges. “I may figure them out on closing night or well after. It’s all clues left in the darkness, you know?”
*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.