Sunday, March 30, 2008

The tipping point

Jennifer Harmon and Jack Davidson try to keep their feet in A Delicate Balance.

I don't often make it up to the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, but friends told me I simply had to catch their current production of A Delicate Balance, so this weekend I ventured out to the wilds of Lowell. And I was glad I did. This Balance far outweighs the meager strengths of Trinity's muddled, miscast version last season - and if it doesn't quite limn the thematic labyrinth beneath Albee's haunting Pulitzer Prize winner, it still offers an evening with the kind of literate subtlety not seen in Boston in - well, maybe years.

A Delicate Balance almost requires subtle treatment because it's a rather delicate plant - it seems to have withered in its Broadway premiere, and its Pulitzer was widely viewed as a compensation prize for the earlier snub of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But critical opinion has slowly tilted in the play's favor - a crackling Broadway revival revealed just how ferocious its power games could be, and as Albee has re-asserted his status as America's greatest living playwright, productions have proliferated - this is the third, in fact, I've seen in a year (one at Trinity, another at the Stratford Festival in Canada, and now this one at Merrimack).

So I'm feeling, by now, as if I were a minor expert on this particular text - the good news is that it keeps giving up new secrets, and I'd be happy to settle down with it a fourth or fifth time. This despite the fact that it is, I admit, elegantly overwritten, which at first blush can make it feel a bit overblown. Of course some have felt that way about Albee's over-arching project - subverting standard Broadway fare with the nihilistic mood of the Theatre of the Absurd. In A Delicate Balance, it's drawing-room comedy that succumbs to existential dread - it opens with Agnes and Tobias, two wealthy WASP avatars, indulging in overripe repartee in some Westchester redoubt; but soon the couple - or rather their milieu - sinks inexplicably into a kind of dramatic panic attack. Their neighbors - and "best friends" - drop by unannounced, fleeing a nameless fear, and it soon becomes clear they have no intention of leaving. This only further strains the equilibrium of the household, which includes Claire, Agnes's live-in sister and drunken antagonist, and Julia, the couple's spoiled daughter, who has returned home licking her wounds from the collapse of a fourth marriage. Indeed, before the sun also rises, everyone will have lost their balance, with cocktails spattered and pistols brandished, all to the sardonic accompaniment of an accordion (I'm not kidding).

The trouble with - or rather the trick to - the underlying chaos of A Delicate Balance, however, is the play's muted, exploratory quality. In Virginia Woolf, it's obvious we're on an elevator straight to hell, but Balance instead hovers teasingly in something like the same vicinity. It's clear many of the earlier play's issues lie just beneath its highly-worked surface - with their only son dead years ago, and their daughter childless, Agnes and Tobias are facing a sterility much like that of Woolf 's George and Martha, and they are likewise grappling with a history of adultery, mutual humiliation, and old-fashioned emotional failure. But while in Woolf, Albee flays his characters down to their last secret (and then sucks out its marrow), in Balance, he leaves almost everything under wraps, lifting the veil of civilization only occasionally to reveal the horrors moving beneath.

This makes Balance both more humane than Woolf and harder to pin down; it floats somewhere between tragedy and farce, and its dynamics generate a spooky unease (or perhaps dis-ease, as Agnes insists her friends are carrying "the plague") without ever settling on a specific frame of reference or theme. Is it a critique of a social class, who suddenly face the terrible flip-side of their pampered aimlessness? Is it a satire of a family so dysfunctional that everything but the liquor cabinet has been compromised or lost? Or is it a tragedy of people whose emotional bargains have rendered them incapable of real connection?

Certainly it's very much of its period, which the Merrimack sensibly underlines (and Trinity attempted to dodge). Don't get me wrong - Balance is a universal play, but its particulars - its cocktail chatter about servants and jokes about one-piece bathing suits - resist updating or revision. Thus it's a pleasure to note that the entire cast looks just as they should - aging, but still country-club elegant, and in costumes (by the talented Martha Hally) that immediately conjure "swinging" late-60s Connecticut. Designer Bill Clarke's set is likewise a funereal delight, with a jet-black picture window that looms over the action much like the mysterious threat outside (when morning finally comes, what's really beyond the window comes as another pleasant shock).

Meanwhile director Charles Towers keeps the action humming along nicely - although sometimes only ensuring the play is "in shape" (as Agnes might say) rather than fathoming its strange depths. I longed, for instance, for more hints of tension between Agnes and Tobias, as well as a stronger undercurrent of self-loathing from Claire (who sexually betrayed her sister long ago), and a more destabilizing, gonzo explosion from daughter Julia, who all but throws herself across the wet bar as if it were the family hearth (which in a way it is). Most importantly, the production didn't quite bring off the sense of re-alignment in the last act, when we discover the genuine "fulcrum" of the clan is Tobias (who then, too late, sends out a desperate plea for connection).

But if the actors sometimes slight the play's subtext, they're pretty dazzling on its surface. Jennifer Harmon brings just the right graciously anxious sheen to Agnes's long arias - even when she's musing on her own sanity, or lack thereof - and Penny Fuller likewise knows where all the bitter laughs in Claire's boozy self-indulgence are buried. Meanwhile Gloria Biegler, though hardly crazed enough in Julia's meltdown, generally etched a complex portrait of wounded self-absorption, and as the invading "friends," Ross Bickell and Jill Tanner toed a highly amusing line between weakness and menace. I was least taken with Jack Davidson's Tobias, whose waters sometimes seemed to run still but not deep - until the character's surprising cry of pain in the last act, which Davidson made utterly convincing.

And it's that cry which I think, in the end, is Albee's signature - the naked, humiliating, all-too-human howl of men and women caught in the desperately cruel, contradictory vise of life. That hearing it expressed should render a deep kind of aesthetic pleasure - the pleasure of recognition - is one of the ironies of our existence, I suppose. But it's an irony worth savoring at the Merrimack.

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