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WOBBLING TO IMBALANCE


Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is ostensibly about boundaries amongst family and friends—when not to violate the sanctity of privacy. For dramatic symmetry, he throws in cryptic fear crippling long-established relationships. Situationally it should work—six intelligent adults in one house inoculated with savvy interplay, armed with brass knuckles. Yet with often meandering dialogue that came with strict acting instructions about which he demanded adherence, thus throwing out spontaneity and balance, his inchoateness oozes through and solidifies, unable to explain why we should care. Exploring assumed angst, he’s delving into the inner anger and terror of not feeling loved and validated, which he experienced as a youth from his parents, represented by Katharine Hepburn’s Agnes and Paul Scofield’s Tobias. But their son’s dead before the play starts, replaced by his sister. Something else is off too—tone. If accepted that the play is meant to be mostly serious, and initially played as such on Broadway as well as in this American Film Theatre version, the only possibility the audience can hope for is that Albee applies his regular-like abstrusity. Or, as is the case here, watch good actors work their asses off to save the wobbling mess. Personally adapted by Albee, with Tony Richardson directing and David Watkins photographing in London, this presentation is so clumsily structured that its sole chance to survive would be to perform it as a West End black comedy of manners. This is apparent when Betsy Blair’s Edna and Joseph Cotton’s Harry as husband barge in on Agnes and Tobias seeking shelter from a flare-up of fright and Blair soon becomes a venomous Lady-in-Waiting-to-Strike who slaps another refugee—Lee Remick’s multi-married loser Julia, daughter of Agnes & Tobias—in front of Hepburn, Scofield, Cotten and Kate Reid as Claire, Agnes’s sister as resident boozing leech, who just stand there without intervening, as if waiting for the juicy retaliation that never arrives. The assault begs to be farce but, wanting to, we’re not laughing; Albee’s sneering, snobby contempt gets in the way. (Years later he corrected some deficiencies and directed a comedy version to acclaim.) With Richardson guiding the “seriousness” without evident discernment of the “whatever” triggering the invasion of privacy, he too seems to be conflicted, confused and confusing, manifested in the following three performances. Commanding as the voice tries to be in the climatic bantering with Cotten, Scofield can’t cut through the artifice to respond to a key revelation of Cotton’s need for and reciprocity of safe harbor. And Cotton plays with such dicey dignity that we can’t figure out if he’s emoting truthfully or dropping a truth bomb meant to be shocking, acidic hilarity. (The latter gets laughs in the sanctioned comedy revivals.) In Margaret Furse-designed cheetah-spotted caftan and the screen’s classiest brown & black kimono, and might be wearing a watch on each wrist, Hepburn risks elevating the playwright’s gas to a sphere of poetic farting while sneaking her customary glances at the camera and cue cards and using her old trick of laughing as she’s talking, only to sink in a malaise of insecurity. (She admitted never understanding what Albee was writing about, a concern shared by Vivien Leigh who, before her death, was scheduled to do the play in England, and Eileen Atkins on the London stage outfoxed the author by employing her renowned weapon of “edge” to tackle both the part and her dueling with Maggie Smith.) Looking terrific in her Charlie’s Angels hair, Remick is just about as 70s shallow yet she’s amusing—if a bit embarrassing: at times as she reminds us of Patty Duke’s Neely without the mascara—as naughty adult child crabbing away at Hepburn and Scofield in the solarium. Reid, taking over from Kim Stanley (having had a mental breakdown during rehearsals), also suffers—from the uglies, the nightmare Sara Gilbert may one day face in the mirror—but she’s more than adequate. When the play first opened on Broadway, it got bruised by many critics including Walter Kerr in the N.Y. Times and Robert Brustein in The Third Theatre; while winning a handful of Tony award nominations, including best play, only Marian Seldes won as best featured actress playing Julia, making us wonder what she was doing that was so rewarding and missing in Remick. The biggest honor for Albee was receiving his first Pulitzer prize that, by most accounts, was bestowed less for merit than consolation for a previous decision not to grant the award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? due to its language. The awful truth about this version of A Delicate Balance is that its wretched, like the longish Richard III hair Albee wore on the set. If only someone had rigged the doorbell not to work.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2021) All Rights Reserved.