"A Delicate Balance," though elegant and often witty, is not one of Edward Albee's easy plays, and despite excellencies here and there, Arena Stage's revival doesn't make it any easier.
Inside this elegiac drama, the Pulitzer Prize winner of 1967, lurk some quiet riches. The trick is unlocking the doors. Arena's production, directed by Zelda Fichandler, provides only some of the necessary keys. There is, however, one sure way the spectator himself can lend a helping hand: Don't look for answers. Look for evasions.
While Albee's play is very real, it is not so realistic as you might conclude from the striped sofa, the artful pile of throw pillows and the handsome bar with its cut-glass tumblers, all of which have been arranged with suburban good taste on the red-lacquered stage floor. The situation is this: After a lifetime built on comfortable patterns, Agnes and Tobias (Myra Carter and Robert Prosky) find their prosperous household in disarray. It's not merely because Claire (Leslie Cass), Agnes' live-in sister, has failed at her one attempt to join Alcoholics Anonymous and is now hitting the sauce more rambunctiously than ever. Nor is it simply because Julia (Halo Wines), Agnes and Tobias' 36-year-old daughter, is on her way home, trailing the wreckage of her fourth failed marriage and expecting "to nestle in to being 15 and misunderstood." Those problems have been contemplated, if not confronted, in the past.
The big crunch occurs when an ashen Edna and Harry (Barbara Lester and Mark Hammer) arrive on the stoop. They have experienced a deep, inexpressible terror that prohibits them from staying in their house a second longer, and have therefore come seeking sanctuary with Agnes and Tobias, their best friends, for a night. Maybe, for much, much longer.
What the spectator should not do, although Julia does it most persistently, is ask for explanations. Albee, you see, is not detailing the clash and rattle of characters who want to resolve some sticky, not to say peculiar, circumstances. He's really describing the equivocal no man's land that these characters -- Tobias, epecially -- must cross before they take a decision. It is a land in which neither commitment nor cop-out has yet gathered shape and the contradictory impulses merely hold one another at bay. A land of neither pro nor con. An elusive land of in-between, where most lives, Albee suggests, dwell in a state of permanent compromise.
How the family members handle the problem of unwanted guests is not the evening's topic. How they try not to handle it is. The drama is in the sidestepping. From that vantage point, the play can be a fascinating chronicle of a kind of moral hide-and-seek people undertake with others and more often with themselves.
Arena is on to that, of course, but not so succinctly as you might hope. What makes this production less than ideal is a fairly serious split in the acting ranks. Acting Albee requires of a performer not merely emotional truth, but also vocal elegance. Granted, his characters sometimes lead from the gut, but they also deal regularly in abstractions. Their thinking patterns and their speech have a certain formal eloquence.
Carter's Agnes, for one, displays the crisp intelligence and the cool relish for fine words that are part of the play's well-bred pleasures. Language is clearly one of her tools, if not a weapon. You'll notice a slightly predatory lean to her body as she unburdens herself of a quickly cutting observation, and then the fine arch of her eyebrows when she scores a bull's-eye. That's not to say she's devoid of emotion, but her emotions are firmly disciplined by the language she uses. To a lesser degree, Lester has a similar feel for the weight and cadence of Albee's words, and it lends stature to Edna, otherwise a secondary character.
But Prosky, Wines and Cass are accentuating the opposite end of the spectrum -- searching out the raw emotion and then letting it erupt to the surface, more often than not at the expense of the carefully calibrated rhythms of the dialogue. Cass, especially, makes Claire sloppy, not fierce, in her drunkenness, thereby mitigating the play's one bravura role. The consequences are obvious: We seem to be watching characters from two different worlds -- or at least two different performing schools. While Albee's play wants to show us a tight society struggling to keep itself from being pulled asunder, much of the rending has already been accomplished in the casting.
It may appear all too simple a diagnosis, but what's missing in this revival is the very quality specified by the title.
A DELICATE BALANCE. By Edward Albee. Directed by Zelda Fichandler; set, Karl Eigsti; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman; lighting, Hugh Lester. With Myra Carter, Robert Prosky, Leslie Cass, Barbara Lester, Mark Hammer, Halo Wines. In the Arena through Feb. 28.