The playwright Edward Albee is quoted as saying that those audience members able to detect the love story in his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are perhaps closer to the show’s ultimate truth than those who see only its bitter anger and psychological violence. Albee said, ”Every one of my plays is an act of optimism, because I make the assumption that it is possible to communicate with other people.” And, of Woolf‘s George and Martha he said: ”At least there was communication in that marriage.”
Communication yes. And a lot of alcohol. Polite alcohol. Alcohol that goes into cocktails made with ice from a silver bucket on a bar parked in the corner of the kind of respectable home in which artists love to display disappointment and dysfunction. It’s the affair hiding behind the smiles of Town & Country couples. The pre-teen pregnancy that doesn’t appear in society page reports of debutante balls. A drowsy Romantic fantasy where perfect marriages occur between one man and one woman and every boy is a cub scout and every little girl dreams about her wedding day. The despair ”family first” types want everyone to believe did not exist in the stable nuclear family of the 1950s and 1960s.
Maybe that’s why an Albee show like A Delicate Balance, now at Arena Stage’s Crystal City theater, feels at once foreign and familiar. It’s an evening balanced neatly on the head of a corkscrew, where what is most wrong and most insidious is not what is being said but how long the resentment of the imperfect has been fermenting. We do not know the living room, but we might be familiar with the undercurrent.
It may also be why there is disappointment at the failure of some members of this revival’s cast to truly let go. To be as messy and undone as circumstances demand. There is, after all, a good distance between the restraint of the proverbial stiff upper lip, and the lack of anything more than a shallow false front.
Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and Tobias (Terry Beaver) are, on the surface, living the kind of life to which we are all meant to aspire. They spend their days in a gracious home with tasteful art and the right kinds of books on their beautifully constructed bookshelves. They belong to the club, drink from lead-crystal highball glasses and, oh yes, have measured though not overly harsh discussions about Agnes’ sister Claire (Ellen McLaughlin).
Claire lives with them, which would not be much of an issue — there’s plenty of room now that daughter Julia (Carla Harting) is out of the house — but Claire has decided she’s no longer an alcoholic. She’s a drunk who likes to drink. So she does. Heavily and often.
And, as it turns out, the house may no longer be as expansive and accommodating since it seems Julia’s fourth marriage has not worked out and Agnes and Tobias’ best friends — well, they have issues.
Having no issues is McLaughlin as the sharp tongued and uninhibited Claire. Her strength is her absolute restraint, the deft decision to not mistake Claire’s alcoholism as an excuse to slip into drunken cartoon. McLaughlin is a careful actor who brings something round and fully crafted to her audience.
Beaver also makes a good deal from his character, a man whose life is well bounded by the rules Claire has chosen to ignore. He is solid and upstanding and the performance is made all the more successful by Beaver’s ability to communicate a vibrant understanding of who Tobias is beyond who he purports to be. It’s expressed through small gestures and well-placed sighs until his final, heartrending crescendo.
Bringing something less than successful to consideration is Chalfant, who often appears more to be reciting Albee’s text than attempting to bring it to life. What it yields is a hollow presentation that fails to generate heat. This is a shame, as Chalfant’s Agnes is meant to be Claire’s opposite number and the tension between them should create a steady and fraying background score to the action. It does not.
Harting’s portrayal is interesting to observe as the character of Julia walks an uncertain line between damage and denial. It’s a razor’s edge upon which Harting sometimes waivers, failing to take that one additional step that would transform the fair to the fantastic. There are moments you believe the actor will break through the fourth wall of set designer Todd Rosenthal’s outstanding vision of Agnes and Tobias’ horsey-set living room only to be disappointed by her quickly pulling back.
Arena’s A Delicate Balance too often loses sight of the humanity Edward Albee gave to his characters. While Albee’s writing is strictly measured and immaculately rendered, his characters most certainly are not. Life — and an outstanding performance — is often in the loose ends.