As the title suggests, Albee's theme is the fragility of the compromises we make with life. Most people, he suspects, lead less-than-happy lives, and yet many manage to reach a kind of accommodation with their unhappiness, familiarity allowing a sort of contentment. But such constructs are unsteady, and any disruption runs the risk of plunging the contented into deeper or at least unfamiliar despair, the unhappiness you know proving preferable to the one you don’t.
That’s an impressive insight and the strong basis for a play, Albee’s failures being those of execution rather than conception. After the high passion of his best play, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, he entered a period of cold, intellectualised, mannered plays, and A Delicate Balance is too often observing its subject from a safe and superior distance rather than guiding us toward sharing its characters’ experience.
Albee introduces us to Agnes and Tobias, an older couple whose marriage has decayed into polite sterility. She unobtrusively runs things while speculating coolly and oh-so-grammatically on what it might be like to go mad, while he pours drinks and tries not to make any ripples on the water.
Also present are the couple’s grown daughter Julia, making one of her regularly-scheduled returns to the nest after her fourth failed marriage, and Agnes’s sister Claire, cynically observing and commenting while insisting that she is a drunk and not an alcoholic, taking some pride in not hiding behind the excuse of a disease.
The family is a mess, individually and in their relations with each other, but it’s a mess they know, and they can function within the dysfunction. And then Albee throws a spanner in the works.
Agnes and Tobias’s best friends appear at their door and announce that, suddenly struck with an unnameable terror, they couldn’t stay home. They claim, in the name of friendship, the right to move in here, and that disruption is enough to throw everyone off balance.
Julia goes from childish petulance to hysterical territoriality, Claire from amused observation to perverse troublemaking. Agnes comes as close as she is capable to losing her cool, and Tobias surprises himself by discovering that the prospect of acknowledging a limit to friendship is even more frightening than the upsets that precede it.
As I said, Albee observes too much of this from the outside, meaning that at its best the play is likely to be an intellectual experience rather than an emotional one. And yet what he is doing is so much of a piece that paradoxically it is exactly director James Macdonald’s attempt to flesh out the characters’ emotional lives and encourage us to feel rather than just observe that keeps this revival from being wholly successful.
I should note that a similar impulse, of replacing the cool and somewhat mannered style of early productions of Harold Pinter’s plays with more rounded and naturalistic playing has repeatedly proven very successful, so I understand Macdonald’s impulse.
He just hasn’t found the way to do it here - or maybe Pinter is just the greater playwright - and so you get the sense of a production that is fighting the play rather than drawing the best out of it.
This is most clearly seen in the character of Agnes. Rightly or wrongly, Albee has written her as a disappointed woman who has turned herself into the essence of frigid intellectuality, and he has constructed the play so the more emotional characters bounce off her in various ways. But when the always wonderful Penelope Wilton softens her edges, the play loses its shape - ironically, her Agnes is too real, too emotionally present.
In smaller way, the same is true of the rest of the admirable cast. Other than an uncanny vocal impersonation of Hume Cronyn (the original 1966 Tobias), Tim Pigott-Smith nicely captures Tobias’s emptiness and essential irrelevance, but reaches a bit too hard for his pathos. Imelda Staunton’s Claire wants to be a little more coolly nasty, Lucy Cohu’s Julia more infantile.
I hasten to reiterate that the actors all do what they do brilliantly - it’s just that they’ve been guided to soften and smooth out a play that wants to be harder-edged.
Yes, I know I’m contradicting myself, criticising Albee for writing too cold a play and Macdonald and his cast for trying to warm it up. I really do respect their impulse, but this is a case in which accepting the author’s vision, flaws and all, might have worked better.
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- A Delicate Balance - Almeida 2011