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A CurtainUp Review
A Delicate Balance

By David Lohrey

Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance has an odd place in the American repertory. Although Albee won his first Pulitzer for this play, most critics feel it is inferior to his Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The latter, though deserving, was denied the prize due to squeamishness on the part of the Pulitzer jury — it also had a successful Broadway run and was made into a memorable Hollywood film, while the prize-winning A Delicate Balance disappeared quickly from the theatrical radar screen.

It is an odd play that does not dazzle with the earthy immediacy of Woolf, but instead partakes of a refined delicacy. If Woolf is all blood and guts, then Balance is surely nothing but bones and dust. In fact, A Delicate Balance introduced audiences to a remoteness and pretension in Albee's work that made him an increasingly obscure and unpopular playwright who for nearly two decades, until the success of Three Tall Women, seemed played out.

SCR's production brings honor to A Delicate Balance and goes a long way toward restoring it to its rightful place as one of America's finest family dramas. Martin Benson and SCR's production team have done Albee proud, beginning with a first-class scenic design by Thomas Buderwitz. What is so marvelous about this rather grand structure, the interior of a proper Westchester County mansion, is that it is there, substantially and meaningfully, yet it gradually disappears. The characters blend in so gracefully as to allow one to forget that there is a set.

The cast seems right where it has to be. The three crucial leads work, individually and as an ensemble. Agnes (Linda Gehringer) rules the roost. Gehringer plays her with quiet strength and suggests enough vulnerability to make Albee's theme of loss ring true. She is in charge and, of course, alone. Tobias (Nicholas Hormann) requires refinement, confidence, and resignation. Hormann gives a performance of sustained aloofness. He looks the part, with his gorgeous white hair and delicate features, and commands the stage -- at all times an actor one wants to watch. Finally, there is Claire, played here by SCR mainstay, Kandis Chappell, a dramatic actress who perhaps looks too together to play an alcoholic but whose intellect is sharp enough to catch the character's essential bitterness and rage.

Supporting roles are perhaps neither as well cast or as persuasively directed. Julia (Rene Augesen) who plays the daughter of Agnes and Tobias home for her fourth divorce plays the part as a silly, whiney 26 year-old, when it calls for an injured woman of some 36 years. There is not enough sadness, perhaps not enough insecurity in her performance to explain her actions. In the end, when she "pulls a Claire," and takes up alcohol, we are at a loss. The visiting friends, who drop by after supper too disturbed and tormented to return home also seem miscast. Edna (Hope Alexander) is strong, but she is a caricature of WASP cold-heartedness. Her performance adds a comic note to what is a serious business. Richard Doyle, one of SCR's finest actors, has developed mannerisms that make his Harry difficult to accept as a member of Albee's country club set. He is too engaging, too hearty. He walks and talks as though he were about to break into an Irish jig. It is not believable that he is Tobias's friend or Edna's husband. Nonetheless, these supporting roles are not of sufficient importance to throw the play off balance, especially given the strength of the three leads.

What is most striking about this play and the SCR's fine production is its immediacy. Even Virginia Woolf is vulnerable to the charge of feeling dated. Not so A Delicate Balance, which plays as though it were written last year. In the first place, the dialogue is free of '60's pop slang, so that the language has an elegance and eloquence that is not easily dated. Secondly, what may have seemed WASPY and therefore irrelevant to the trendy 60's, now applies more generally to America's mass affluent society. In other words, WASPS may be extinct, but the social world of Agnes and Tobias is not at all remote from the SCR's upper middle-class audience. One could not help noticing how attentively this audience listened. They knew they were hearing words that applied to them. This seemed especially true when Agnes was speaking, and reminded me how much this play belongs to and is about women.

If Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is Albee's best play, its place in his oeuvre reminds me of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, which also continues to be revived on the strength of its lead characters. A Delicate Balance is more reminiscent of Hellman's far superior, Another Part of the Forest, which is essentially an ensemble piece and a drama of relationships without a star. These plays are rarely done because great actors choose to do plays which offer star turns. As a result, A Delicate Balance will probably not be back for another two or three decades. Take time now to savor this minor masterpiece. It is the only American play to charge that our problem is not just with our hearts but with our minds.

Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Martin Benson
Cast: Hope Alexander (Edna), Rene Augesen (Julia), Kandis Chappell (Claire), Richard Doyle (Harry), Linda Gehringer (Agnes), Nicholas Hormann (Tobias). Set Design: Thoman Buderwitz
Costume Design: Walker Hicklin
Lighting Design: Tom Ruzika
Stage Manager: Randall K. Lum
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, 92626, (714) 708-5555. From 01/12/2001-02/11/01

Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 01/13/01.


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