I’m not a big Edward Albee fan, but I was tempted by Aurora Theater’s preview sale ($25 tickets) and 7:00 start time last Tuesday and I went to A Delicate Balance. I had a very good time. I’m still not quite won over to him, but I liked this play the best of the ones I’ve seen or read, and the ensemble was really strong.
My problem with him basically is that he doesn’t go far enough into Theater of the Absurd territory for me to find his plays convincing: I keep wondering why people don’t just leave, tell their hosts/guests to shut up, get out, whatever. Samuel Beckett’s people, while entirely plausible as actual humans, are so far on the social edge that you can accept what happens to them as real, no matter how arbitrary or cruel it is. They’re in a way purified of social conventions and expectations. Albee’s people are firmly situated in the middle class yet when arbitrary and cruel things happen to them – when their hosts turn on them in a game of “get the guest,” when their spouses have affairs with goats, when their best friends (as in this play) show up and move in with little explanation other than “we’re frightened” – they often react in ways that do not seem those of middle-class people of their time and place – if they did, there goes the play. They look like people in a living room, but they talk like people on a stage.
The time and place are evoked very precisely by the comfortable and stylish but somewhat formal furniture in Aurora’s realistic production (they even have New Yorker magazines from the right month and year – I think it’s March/April 1966 – on the coffeetable; the Aurora is such an intimate theater-in-the-round that you can see the dates of the magazines). As you might have gathered, I had mixed feelings about this: on the one hand, Agnes and Tobias, our long-married protagonists, seem unduly reticent about quite a lot of what goes on around them. On the other hand, that pre-feminist-movement setting explains to some extent why their 38-year-old daughter Julia, about to initiate her fourth divorce, moves back in with them to no one's surprise, rather than get an apartment on her own, and the pre-AIDS setting explains why sensitive middle-class people refer occasionally to "fags," and the pre-"tough love" setting explains why they don’t take stronger measures with Agnes’s alcoholic sister Claire (though by contemporary standards they all drink so much and so constantly that it seems a bit arbitrary to label Claire as the alcoholic).
I thought the play went on too long (it’s roughly two and a half hours, but I’m talking about the material, not just its duration, and maybe I should point out I was fairly heavily drugged on OTC allergy medications); the third act especially bogs down with overly simplistic revelations of cause and effect (“because you did X when Y happened . . . therefore Z – and now our lives are explained!”). Some things (like Claire showing up with an accordion) seem like sort of fun but arbitrary ways of upping the action; would anyone in the middle of a serious quarrel realistically just let her provide ironic incidental music? Moments like that might be more convincing in a more stylized stripped-down staging, but then such staging would unbalance other moments.
As I’ve noted before, the problem with plays about addiction and other compulsive behaviors is that such behaviors by their nature are repetitious and cyclical – therefore, when something happens (drunken outbursts, revelations of the shocking truth, etc) that clearly must have happened many times before, it seems stagey to me when characters react as if they’ve never dealt with these things before, as if some strong wall has been breached – these are middle-aged people, edging into elderly; surely they’ve figured out how to deal with this sort of thing, and if they haven't, then they're playing along. (That applies mostly to Claire's and Julia's behavior; it really is brilliantly shocking yet inevitable when the stolid best friends, Harry and Edna, not only move in because of sudden existential terror, but start making themselves too much at home.)
So I had some mixed feelings about the play, though I mostly enjoyed it, but what really carries the evening is the superb ensemble cast: Kimberly King as Agnes, Ken Grantham as Tobias, Jamie Jones as Claire, Anne Darragh as Edna, Charles Dean as Harry, and Carrie Paff as Julia, and there's not a weak link in the bunch (directed by Tom Ross, Aurora Artistic Director). At various points they all made me laugh or surprised me with something unexpected. The play runs until October 9; call the box office at 510-843-4822 for tickets (they also have on-line sales, but use the stupid “best seat available” system rather than letting you see all available seats and choosing your own, so I always buy their tickets over the phone – the staff is very helpful).