"Balance" a Bit Unbalanced

By Geary Danihy

Scenic designer Chien-Yu Peng’s set for the Yale Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” stretches the entire width of the Rep’s stage, creating a cavernous space that allows director James Bundy to visually emphasize and reemphasize the great gulfs that separate the characters in this often gripping yet finally pretentious echo of themes the playwright dealt with in a more convincing and dramatically satisfying manner in his earlier “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

In “Woolf” we had a marriage held together by barbed wire and serpent spit invaded by an ingenuous couple who by their very presence stirred up a witch’s cauldron of repressed anger, fear and denial. In “A Delicate Balance,” which premiered four years after “Woolf,” we have another marriage, albeit a less volatile one, invaded this time by long-standing friends of Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) and Tobias (Edward Herrmann) who flee their home because they are terrified. Of what? Life? Silence? Existential angst? Another night of TV dinners? The very nature of the terror that Edna (Kathleen Butler) and Harry (John Carter) are running away from is left open to question…the audience members, depending on their age, can fill in the appropriate blanks.

Edna and Harry enter a household that already has its fly in the buttermilk: Claire (Ellen McLaughlin), the sister of Agnes, a lady who protests that she is not an alcoholic but rather a drunk; the former cannot help herself, the latter wills to swill. Actors love to play the witty drunk roles and playwrights love to write lines for them, and Claire has all the best lines. In fact, McLaughlin’s character really owns the play, for she is the voice of inebriated reason, cutting through pretentiousness in Dorothy Parker fashion, all snarl and slur. 

To throw another metaphor into the mix, there’s a final iron added to the fire in the form of Agnes and Tobias’s daughter, Julia (Keira Naughton), who is fleeing her fourth failed marriage. Her pending arrival is established in the first act, but there’s a problem: Edna and Harry have taken up residence in Julia’s childhood room.

The play’s second act is a delightful conflagration of character conflict. It opens with Julia’s arrival, only to find that her nest has been inhabited. She is beside herself; Agnes attempts to temper the situation; Tobias puts the best spin on things; Edna and Harry demand their rights as friends and Claire plays the accordion and scalds psyches. The knives, or rather the scalpels, are out, and everyone has various pieces of emotional flesh flensed. The lights go down and you can’t wait for the Vesuvius of emotions that will resolve the tension.

Alas, the lights come back up and Albee begs the question, or rather forgets what the question is. All of the audience’s emotional investment has been made in Agnes, Tobias, Claire and Julia – the dysfunctional family extraordinaire. Edna and Harry are merely catalysts, or so one would think. However, for most of the third act, after a cat-and-mouse conversation between Agnes and Tobias, followed by a great coffee and orange juice contretemps that bodes well for a fireworks finale, the women – the source of the play’s sturm und drang – are shuffled off into the kitchen to make breakfast, and it is left to Tobias and Harry to resolve whatever conflicts they can, but it’s a side-show, a so-what set-piece scene that has all the emotional impact of an infomercial.

In the play’s final moments the ladies are allowed back on the stage, but not to mix it up again. Claire and Julia are consigned to silence as first Edna and then Agnes take center stage to deliver “meaning” lines.

You can always tell the “meaning” lines – the actor’s voice drops and delivery slows; often eyes gaze up towards some theatrical better world. As if worried that the audience will miss these “meaning” lines, Bundy gives both Butler and Chalfant center stage to deliver their lines. In on the “momentous moment,” lighting designer Alan C. Edwards gives us a brave new dawn look to enhance Chalfant’s lines. The hoped for fire of resolved conflict turns into a fizzling flare, all sputter and sparks. Oh Claire, where are you when we need you? Are you really buying all of this? Alas, Albee doesn’t allow her to speak.

“A Delicate Balance” runs through Saturday, Nov. 13. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.

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