Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance is a literate, witty and enormously challenging piece of theater, as proved by several dreary film and stage versions (most notably Albee's own 1973 movie starring Katharine Hepburn). Albee's 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning play flopped on Broadway, then gathered dust on a shelf until an acclaimed New York production two years ago.
The story features Agnes (played here by Joan Steen Silberschlag) and Tobias (Steven Mastroieni), who lead a vaguely uneasy life with her alcoholic sister, Claire (Barbara McGrath). One afternoon their daughter Julia (Helen Hayes) shows up, distraught after the dissolution of her fourth marriage. Later, Agnes and Tobias' best friends--Edna (Wanda McHatton) and Harry (Paul Benchwick)--appear, having been driven out of their house by some unnamed fear.
Several drunken shouting matches ensue, during which Albee trots out his usual stable of incongruent themes: love, sex, loyalty, mental disorders, the meaning of life.
About half of the playwright's sometimes suffocating dialogue gets trampled by the occasionally extraordinary cast. That's because several actors--most notably Steen Silberschlag, a talented, 45-year stage veteran--are left standing stock-still, chewing great mouthfuls of Albee's words to no effect at all.
The problem lies with the program's young and largely inexperienced director, Scott Balthazor, who doesn't seem to know why Albee put these words into his characters' mouths in the first place. The recent ASU Theater Arts graduate clearly got straight A's in set dressing; he creates some pretty tableaux here, and his players are always visible and facing the actor they're addressing.
But Steen Silberschlag spoke countless slack-jawed lines directly to the knees of the first-row patrons; and McGrath's delivery was far too smirky and cute for an Albee play. Claire is meant to be brittle, not clownish.
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There isn't a really interesting performance until Wanda McHatton arrives onstage at the half-hour mark, or a really strong one until Helen Hayes erupts into a shrieking tantrum late in the evening. Mastroieni gets going in the second act, when he's called on to trade in Tobias' befuddled decorum for a climactic aria of rage. His scenes with Hayes (whose wonderfully varied performance makes me wonder why she doesn't work more) bristle with the tension that his exchanges with Steen Silberschlag lack.
Unlike Albee's more famous Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, A Delicate Balance is a slimmer, more mysterious work that treads lightly over its revelations about the horrors of human nature. While Woolf's George and Martha twitch and gibber and shout out every one of their emotions, Agnes and Tobias struggle to vocalize their feelings. Sure, there are some good screaming sessions here, but we're left to wonder what all the fuss is about. More specifically, there's the mystery of what forced Harry and Edna from their home. While Albee means for their exodus to be a cryptic commentary on the scary meaninglessness of their lives, here the couple's terror--like the better part of this near-miss production--is vague and ethereal, and ultimately means nothing.
In Mixed Company's production of A Delicate Balance continues through Saturday, January 23, at PlayWright's Theatre, 1121 North First Street.