Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance is ostensibly about boundaries amongst family and friends—when not to violate the sanctity of privacy. However, the author’s implicit theme—the unprepared-for plague of fear—is at odds with the play’s meanderings and throws everything off. Can only guess why: perhaps Albee hadn’t yet reached his own middle-aged angst rumblings to be able to get at the terror of not feeling validated or loved. Something else is off too—tone. If it’s accepted that this is meant to be familial drama, and it was played originally as such on Broadway and now in this version, the only possibility of surviving as play is for the audience to fill in the fear not there and that doesn’t make for an evening of satisfaction. The American Film Theatre version Albee adapted and Tony Richardson directed is so clumsily structured that its single chance to survive is to be performed as a West End comedy. When Betsy Blair as a venomous Lady-in-Waiting slaps shrill Lee Remick and the rest of the cast—Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Joseph Cotten and Kate Reid—just stands by without intervening, as if waiting for the juicy retaliation, the action loses aim and begs to be farce. But we’re not laughing; Albee’s sneering, snobby contempt for his creatures gets in the way. (He must have received the vibes as he would later direct a pure comedy version to high acclaim.) Because Richardson directs seriousness into the veneered surfaces about the disease of fear and the dread of privacy invaded, Scofield, as commanding as he tries to be in his climatic bantering with Cotten, is stunningly conflicted, confused and confusing. He’s responding to the key revelation that Cotton’s need for safe harbor against his rising sudden swell of fear won’t be considered, despite that fact they’ve been friends for forty years. And Cotton plays with such dignity that when the disclosure comes we can’t figure out if he’s emoting truthfully or dropping a bastard bomb as shocking ironic hilarity. Hepburn, with a watch on each wrist and in Dalmatian-spotted caftan and then the classiest of its kind brown & black kimono designed by Margret Furse, starts out elevating the playwright’s puffery to a sphere of poetic farting while sneaking her customary glances at the camera and using her old trick of laughing as she’s talking, only to sink in a malaise of insecurity. (She admitted that she never understood what Albee was writing about, a concern shared by Vivien Leigh who, before her death, was scheduled to do the play in England.) Looking terrific in her “Charlie’s Angels” hair, Remick is just about as 70s shallow yet she’s amusing as naughty adult child blasting away at mother Hepburn in the solarium. Reid, who took over from Kim Stanley (she displeased Hepburn during rehearsals), suffers from a case of the uglies—she’s the nightmare Sara Gilbert might one day face in the mirror—but she’s more than adequate even if the part belongs to Elizabeth Taylor, who might have saved this mess by bringing much needed zip and trash appeal. (Imagine what Liz might have suggested about herself when mocking AA.) Photographed in London by David Watkin, who had numerous problems moving the camera about the house. Albee won the Pulitzer Prize for the play, but clearly as consolation over the previous decision not to grant the award for Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? due to its language.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.