Editors' pick

A Delicate Balance

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Editorial Review

Arena Stage's 'Delicate Balance': Perfectly Weighted With Subtlety & Smarts

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, Feb. 16, 2009

What a pleasure, lapping up all that angst. You wouldn't call "A Delicate Balance" a consoling experience. And yet you do feel swaddled in comfort during Arena Stage's revival of Edward Albee's brilliant dramedy of the inarticulate fears marinating in the martini glasses of the elite.

That's because the expert hands deliver an evening of combustibly entertaining drama, of a variety that reminds you how enriching a play can be with a subtle and sophisticated grip on the human psyche. This is grown-up theater -- the bristling sort that gives a playgoer hope, even when the theme is a strange brand of hopelessness.

Not to bring the room down, but you do also find yourself wondering, as you absorb the pleasures of six actors going at one another in the becomingly civilized quarters of Todd Rosenthal's living-room set, why more evenings can't be like this one, especially at Arena. No major company in Washington represents a more vital link to the American tradition of great playwriting, and none has more authority to reaffirm it.

So let the endorsement of this production also be an entreaty: Give us more work of this caliber, please, even if these plays are harder to sell than they were in yesteryear. (And even if it means fewer visits by tours of famous-songwriter jukebox revues.)

As presided over by director Pam MacKinnon, who staged the juicily satirical "The Unmentionables" at Woolly Mammoth 18 months ago, the revival of Albee's Pulitzer-winning piece feels as solidly built as the immaculate manse in which the turbulent story unfolds. It's been populated with a splendidly well-suited cast, particularly in the person of Kathleen Chalfant, who plays Agnes, the lady of the house, as a reluctant, caged scorpion with a finely disguised stinger. Her match is met by Ellen McLaughlin in the bravura role of Agnes's younger sister Claire, a truth-telling lush whose specialties seem to be making messes and drowning in her anger at Agnes's unbreachable wall of composure.

What's constructed here is a portrait, flavored with Albee's lacerating wit, of people losing their grip, divesting themselves of the lie that life makes more sense as we grow more maritally settled and materially secure. The collapse of the facade is terrifying for no group more than those who have the money for minks and wine cellars and country clubs, those who have committed the most belief to the illusion that all's well that ends well.

At the moment, the entire world is feeling a sense of dislocation. It's surprising how presciently this 1966 play nestles into contemporary consciousness -- even as the mysteries in Albee's tale keep a line open to the absurd.

We find ourselves in the tony home in a wealthy suburb that Agnes and her husband, Tobias (a bracingly convincing Terry Beaver), share with volatile Claire. Perched in Arena's Crystal City space, Rosenthal's light-filled set all but smells of old money, down to the demitasse cups and tapestry hanging in the hallway, and costume designer Ilona Somogyi dresses the women, from blowsy Claire to sleek, buttoned-up Agnes, to perfection. Agnes opens the play, commenting about someday losing her mind, and from there on we get the escalating idea of everything around her coming apart.

The childishly exhibitionist Claire seems to be slowly drinking herself into oblivion. Agnes and Tobias's unpleasant, eternally unsettled daughter Julia (Carla Harting) turns up, a refugee from her fourth failed marriage. Then, most curiously, into the driveway pulls the car of Agnes and Tobias's best friends, Edna and Harry (Helen Hedman and James Slaughter), who have arrived uninvited and soon make it clear they have no plans to leave.

The choreography of understated responses to Edna and Harry's outrageous condition -- they experienced some type of existential crisis in their own house, and now are too frightened to go back -- is handled in crackerjack fashion by MacKinnon and her cast. The dread they've brought into the house is swept to the side in the spirit of hospitality. Or perhaps it's only vaguely acknowledged because Edna and Harry have violated a taboo, bringing the terror everyone secretly harbors into the open.

Hedman and Slaughter niftily maintain the traumatized couple's sociable air, as if their imposing on Agnes were as expected as showing up for cocktails at 5. You laugh at first because everybody's been there, with the guests who wouldn't leave. As you watch further, however, they become less funny, more harrowing. Despair always leaves you with that certain feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Albee threads through the play's three acts the battle between Claire and Agnes, a conflict the actresses treat as a delightful blood sport. Behind her hooded eyes, McLaughlin vibrantly portrays Claire as a wounded thing, rebelling against her sister's sense of propriety and yet holding back some ammunition, for fear of doing more harm to Agnes than she intends. Chalfant's droll ripostes to the wilder Claire are so dry you think the paint might spontaneously start to peel.

Harting envelops Julia in an aptly sour perfume of failure; as with Claire, Edna and Harry, Julia's taking shelter with Agnes and Tobias is a way of shutting out the world and in her particular case, a world of disappointment. But as the play reveals, awful truths pursue you, and walls have a way of closing in, no matter how beautifully they're decorated.

A Delicate Balance, by Edward Albee. Directed by Pam MacKinnon. Lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Timothy Thompson; wigs, Chuck Lapointe. About 2 hours 55 minutes.