A Delicate Balance

Fear's a Man's Best Friend

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance first appeared in 1966.   It’s now playing at the Yale Rep, directed by James Bundy. Going in, the main question on my mind was whether or not the play – which says it’s taking place NOW – would feel adequate to today or would seem as though it still had a foot in the pre-Nixon era of its origins. Some references – topless bathing suits, a marijuana cache busted nearby – certainly harken to the old days, but not necessarily. The marijuana reference, at least, has become timely again with a new movement afoot to legalize it. But the aspects of the play that do feel a bit dated are perhaps deceptively so. One is when Julia, daughter of Tobias and Agnes, well-to-do bourgeois of the type that immediately bring to mind the grand tradition of Ibsen and Chekhov, describes the (fourth) husband she has left as someone who is simply opposed to everything. We hear Albee’s lines describing a nascent radical of the Left, back in the day when the young were rife with such.  But, today, could he not be a radical of the Right more easily?

At one point Tobias, newspapers in hand, disparages the Republicans for being as brutal as ever.  It’s a line Albee updated in 1996 to reference Gingrich et al. (the plays seems to be produced only when Democrats are in office).  Tobias and Agnes are clearly meant to be “liberals,” and much of the play’s drama consists of them trying to decide what to do about another couple – their oldest friends, Harry and Edna – who simply turn up one night, claim they became frightened in their own home, and proceed to move in with Tobias and Agnes, while at the same time Julia, often shrill and sulky across the generation gap, has returned home as well.  It’s Julia (played with the requisite petulance by Keira Naughton) who claims her father’s “house is not in order,” and while we know that the Great Society was getting shaky in 1966, with the effort to accommodate everyone’s demands a strain on civility, how much more is that the case in 2010, as new movements attempt not only to undo Clinton and Johnson, but FDR as well?

I’ve mentioned all this at such length because it seems to me that Albee’s play, in Bundy’s recreation of it, has triumphantly entered the 21st century with its nimble allegory intact – “as we get older we become allegorical,” Agnes tells her husband, at times seeming to speak for her author.  In our times, it’s easy enough to imagine the “terror” or “plague,” as Agnes calls it, sweeping over Harry and Edna as tied to seismic economic change instead of to the alterations in mores of the Sixties. Certainly the couple's fear could be existential, but Claire, who seems in many ways the most savvy – “the walking wounded” are often “the least susceptible” to “the plague,” Agnes allows – jibes “I was wondering when it would begin, when it would start.” The statement comes from a perspective balanced precariously above a deluge to come.

All of which is to say the delights of this play tend to be thoughtful ones. Though it’s not a light night of theater, Bundy’s direction does find the surprised laughs, the quick wit, the rueful chuckles in the material, perhaps intruding a bit too much comedy into Edna’s initial annoucement of the couple’s fear. For a second we might think that Edna (Kathleen Butler) is simply immensely silly, but that’s not right. Edna, who is elsewhere rather flinty, has sense enough to deliver at least one of the morals of the story: that social life is always a testing of boundaries, of what is permitted, of what may be requested.

Most of the laughs come by way of Ellen McLaughlin’s Claire – wry, spirited, often performing for her sister and brother-in-law to provoke them from their rather formidable settledness. Stretching out on the floor, upending orange juice on the carpet, tootling an accordian, yodeling, recounting her grim days as a “willful drunk,” sniping at Agnes, who sees her as a knowing observer, Claire first appears in a sort of retro-punk ensemble, with spikey Laurie Anderson-like hair, but later cleans up nicely in a designer outfit. She’s nothing if not mercurial and McLaughlin makes the most of this plum role.

Kathleen Chalfant’s Agnes is much drier in her humor, just as pointed in exchanges, but much more self-reflexive in her speechifying. She has immense dignity and character. Not really likeable, most of the time, her statement of her wifely position in Act Three humanizes her to a surprising degree, allowing her to assert her role as the one on whom nothing can be lost, so that we understand why she opens and closes the play wondering, in very reasonable tones, if she may one day go mad. Her least “liberal” moment is her statement that Harry and Edna’s fear is an infectious disease that may infect them all. Has it already, we wonder.

The great asset of this production is Edward Herrmann as Tobias. Tall, broad-shouldered, with fluent hair and a graying beard, he mutters, constantly makes drinks, and drifts around his well-appointed livingroom, a wonderful Yale-ish space with dark wood and cathedral-like verticality by Chien-Yu Peng. Whereas Agnes says she is the fulcrum upon which all balances, Tobias is the one for whom she balances things. The women of his life are a context of incessant voices but to Tobias are given two of the most memorable speeches, the one about a cat he killed because she no longer liked him, and the other an “aria” or passionate outburst to Harry on the question of whether or not he wants his friend and his wife to stay. Herrmann, so bulkily patrician (he has played FDR, after all), has a great knack for delivering Tobias’ lines so that we can hear Tobias listening to himself, considering the impression his own words make on him, and in the outburst we hear Tobias desperately trying to sound and be sincere, to demand of himself sacrifice, to say that, yes, there is room for all, even if he has to dredge up caring from some forgotten cupboard in his soul.

In the film of this play, directed by Tony Richardson in 1973 for American Film Theater, the two leads are played by Paul Scofield and Katherine Hepburn and, great as those actors are, neither felt quite right to me, Scofield too tragic, Hepburn too tremulous. I found Chalfant’s Elaine Stritch-like clarity much more effective, and, great as Scofield is, think that Herrmann’s Tobias, a tower crumbing, will be the one I remember whenever I read this play.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance; directed by James Bundy; Yale Repertory Theatre

October 22 to November 13, 2010