To begin with, A Delicate Balance is a masterpiece. I’m not sure that anything in Edward Albee’s daunting catalogue — some 30 plays — surpasses it. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is sadder; Tiny Alice, more mysterious; Three Tall Women, more ruthless. I love all of those, and many others. But in A Delicate Balance, as befits its title, Albee manages to keep the sadness, the mystery, and the ruthlessness in dynamic equilibrium, tipping this way and that but never crashing. It’s also, somehow, his funniest play, daring to take an almost sitcom premise and mainline it with tragedy. After all, does this not sound like the pitch for an episode of something cable-worthy? Agnes and Tobias, a married couple, bicker and joke about each other’s foibles. Agnes’s permadrunk sister, Claire, arrives, trailing barbs. Later, their daughter, Julia, shows up, having recently parachuted out of her fourth marriage. (Claire calls her a “quadruple amputee.”) Meanwhile Edna and Harry, their “very best friends in the whole world,” drop by unannounced. Only it’s not sugar they want. They’ve come to say that they’ve come to stay. In Julia’s room. Possibly forever. You can all but hear the “uh-oh!” on the soundtrack.
It’s a joy to report that the new Broadway revival, starring Glenn Close and John Lithgow as Agnes and Tobias, gets this laugh, and all the others. By “gets” I don’t just mean “achieves.” The production, beautifully shaped by the director Pam MacKinnon, also understands that the laugh is a deeply ambivalent expression, an awareness of something dreadful to come, or something dreadful that has already come but is yet to be revealed. Albee knew that if he wanted to get the audience to follow him where he intended to go, he was going to have to lubricate them first, and he succeeded; there is so much delight in the descent that you hardly feel the terrain dropping away. Each fury, and there are many, is perfectly faceted and then rotated to capture different angles of the light. When, for instance, Tobias suggests that Agnes apologize to her sister for some unspecified act of humiliation, Albee forces us to follow the wit-gone-amok of lines like this:
AGNES: Apologize! To her? To Claire? I have spent my adult life apologizing for her; I will not double my humiliation by apologizing to her.
TOBIAS: One does not apologize to those for whom one must?
Lithgow doesn’t just get his mouth around that one, he gets his soul around it; in all his plaid-and-argyle glory (the revolting costumes are by Ann Roth) he fulfills Julia’s description of him as a “very nice but ineffectual, essential but not-really-thought-of, gray noneminence.” At the same time, he gives the lie to that description: Everyone is eminent in his own mirror. Indeed, the play, by one reading, is his tragedy: that of a man who did not act soon enough and decisively enough to avert unhappiness. By another reading, it’s Agnes’s tragedy: that of a woman who acted too soon and too decisively to avert it. Agnes is a martinet of reasonableness, precaution, decorum. It is she who has kept the “delicate balance” in an emotionally overleveraged family, albeit not without collateral damage. “I apologize for being articulate,” she spits. Close, her eyes gleaming with Agnes’s useless intelligence, is superb with this material, totally believable as a lockjawed suburban virago. More fully even than Rosemary Harris, who played the role in the great 1996 revival, Close justifies Albee’s rewrite of the line “our dear Republicans, as dull as ever” to “as brutal as ever” for that production. Alas, he did not have to change it back for this one.
But in other ways time is a problem in remounting, as we must, A Delicate Balance. The script, from 1966, says it takes place “now,” and of course its underlying questions of happiness and responsibility have no sell-by date. But the conditions underlying “now” have not remained static. Already in 1996, Albee had to change a reference to topless bathing suits, which were so long out of fashion that the hilarious story Claire tells about shopping for one no longer made sense. The same tale coming from a woman who is supposed to be 50-ish in 2014 sounds less like a lark than a flat-out lie. Combined with the up-aging of everyone in the cast by 10 to 20 years, this makes it difficult to understand what kind of world these characters represent. With their servants and jodhpurs and seven-to-one martinis, do they even exist anymore? And if they did, would they have these problems? MacKinnon seems to have perceived this problem but decided to fudge it. Which leaves the production a bit smeary at the edges.
Luckily it is piercingly clear at the center. The question of what Agnes and Tobias should do about their best friends’ need for succor grows quickly horrific after its hilarious introduction. This turn is partly the result of very fine work from Bob Balaban, and especially Clare Higgins, as Harry and Edna, who keep, yes, a delicate balance between the absurdity of their blandness and the primal terror of their plight. To watch Higgins flip from pitiful tears to snappish moralizing, both of them genuine, in a few lines of dialogue is to watch real character being built in real time. If neither Martha Plimpton as Julia nor Lindsay Duncan as Claire reaches quite the same extremes of inhabitation, they are both fine in difficult roles. Julia is difficult because Albee, in perhaps the play’s only fault, left her something of a pincushion, just saying ouch all the time. And Claire, the all-seeing, nothing-doing Cassandra of the country-club set, is difficult because, well, Elaine Stritch bought her and took her home in 1996.
None of that matters. It’s enough to be in the presence of these words again. That they indict even as they tickle makes their pleasure more satisfying. And make no mistake, Albee is indicting an American way of life that many in the audience probably enjoy. We are Agneses more than Tobiases, trying to maintain. “We’re not a communal nation, dear,” says Claire. “Giving, but not sharing, outgoing, but not friendly.” Unlike merely dull Republicans and topless bathing suits, that’s a style that has not gone out of fashion.
A Delicate Balance is at the Golden Theatre through February 22.