Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Delicate Balance

photo: Brigette Lacombe
A classic boulevard comedy is back on Broadway. The side-splitting laughter that rings through the auditorium is fairly deafening. No, I’m not talking about the acclaimed revival of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You, which I reviewed a few weeks back. Nor am I discussing Terrence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, which is minting money over at the Schoenfeld Theatre thanks to its starry cast. And no one has snuck a Neil Simon favorite into the season’s line-up. The play in question is Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, and it’s a scream.

Apparently, A Delicate Balance is uproariously funny. A real knee-slapping laugh riot. At least, that’s the impression being given by the current, woefully misguided revival of this Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, which is several weeks into previews at the John Golden Theatre. Directed by the usually reliable Pam MacKinnon and featuring an ensemble cast with boldface names to spare, this production projects a tone-deaf unsteadiness from the moment the curtain rises.

At first, I wasn’t sure if the gut-busting laughter around me was borne from the audience being unsure of how to react to this challenging play. Like most of Albee’s work, it is highly stylized, blending artifice with naturalism, the philosophical with the everyday. And to be frank, the people sitting around me seemed to be more interested in saying they saw Glenn Close on stage than wrestling with the weighty issues of love, family, friendship, and obligation that the play confronts. Yet, it became almost immediately clear that the actors were making a conscious choice to heighten the comedic aspect of the text—and it’s a bad one. There are humorous aspects, but it shouldn’t be this funny. Moments that should be chilling are greeted with caterwauls here.

Agnes (Close, back on Broadway for the first time in twenty years) and Tobias (John Lithgow, not well-cast) are a prosperous couple in late middle-age. As the play opens, they’re settling into cocktails on a Friday evening at their quiet suburban home. (The gorgeous set, by Santo Loquasto, is this production’s best aspect.) Also present is Claire (Lindsay Duncan), Agnes’ alcoholic sister, who is living with them in an attempt to straighten herself out. Things become chaotic when the couple’s best friends, Harry and Edna (Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins, fine actors who make little impression), arrive well into the night and ask if they can stay. There is something in their home—something unspecified—that they fear.

First produced in 1966, this production apparently takes place in the present. However, the actors are dressed and act as though this were not the case. Even the women’s wigs suggest a bygone era. Trying to make A Delicate Balance a contemporary play is a poor choice: the characters are timeless because they are of their time. It’s especially odd to see Agnes and Tobias’ daughter, Julia (Martha Plimpton), as a modern-day woman. When she returns to the family home at the top of the second act, having just left her fourth husband, she seems content to rest permanently in the warm bosom of her childhood. Albee was writing at a time when the Feminist movement and feminist theory were nascent, and Julia is a reflection of a well-bred young woman who can only move from her parents to her spouses. If this production were set in 2014, Julia would have been born in the mid-to-late 1970s and presumably received more than a finishing school education. She—and her parents—feel like relics of a previous age dropped in the present, and that doesn’t add anything to the text.

On paper, it’s possible to see Close as a strong choice to play Agnes. It’s not the showiest part—that would be Claire, which Duncan (a West End star who won a Tony in 2002 for Private Lives, and who gives the only completely satisfying performance here) devours like a twenty-ounce porterhouse. She’s a complex and introspective woman, which, in a way, is her unraveling. Though she can showboat with the best of them—see her Emmy-winning work on Damages, or her performance as Norma Desmond in the musical adaptation of Sunset Blvd —Close also projects an assured naturalism that’s served her well in films like Albert Nobbs and The World According to Garp.

However, Close’s major acting choice here seems to be catatonia. Whenever she was absent from the stage for any period of time, I simply forgot she existed. She doesn’t offer a portrait of a complicated woman. In fact, she doesn’t put across much of anything.

Pam MacKinnon is one of the most talented directors working. Her Tony for the revival of another Albee classic, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was well-deserved. She also did top-notch, underrated work earlier this year with her production of Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends. Yet, so many of the choices here are baffling. This production will do well financially, thanks to Close’s presence, and might even pull in some strong reviews. But I’d say you’re far better off going up to the Lincoln Center Library and watching the late Gerald Gutierrez’s brilliant 1996 revival, starring Rosemary Harris, Elaine Stritch, and the late, great George Grizzard.

[Running time: Two hours and fifty minutes, with two ten-minute intermissions. Fourth-row mezzanine seats, BroadwayBox discount.]

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