An Unbalanced “Delicate Balance”

By David A. Rosenberg

If there’s one thing “A Delicate Balance” needs, it’s balance. As directed by James Bundy, Yale Rep’s production of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize drama is out of sync in too many ways although, by its inherent virtues, the play is still a strong study of upper-class disintegration and moral bankruptcy. The mirror image of Albee’s masterpiece, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (which was denied the Pulitzer in 1962 because of its “immorality”), the 1966 “Balance” continued the author’s dissection of people who have lost their way.

Agnes and Tobias have had a long marriage (they have a 36-year-old daughter) that has become unromantic and untroubled. Not only do they sleep in separate rooms, they compensate for their sterile, passionless state by elliptical speech: words are spoken, yet meaning is obscured.

Agnes opens and closes the piece with similar convoluted thoughts. “What I find most astonishing . . . (is) the belief that I might very easily . . . lose my mind one day,” she says. What’s astonishing is not so much the words as the way they’re said, almost matter-of-factly. For she and Tobias live matter-of-fact lives in their handsome mansion.

One who interrupts their placidity is Claire, Agnes’ sister, who classifies herself not as an alcoholic but “just a drunk” and who may have had a brief affair with Tobias. A fixture, she does not intend leaving the house. Another is Julia, Agnes and Tobias’s willful daughter who, because her fourth marriage is breaking up, comes home and, naturally, wants her old room back.

That she can’t have it is due to the mysterious arrival of neighbors and friends Edna and Harry. Sitting at home alone that evening, the couple suddenly became frightened. ”It was like being lost, very young again, with the dark, and lost,” says Harry. So they’ve come to move in – permanently. This so unnerves everyone that they spend the rest of the play debating if the intruders should be allowed to stay or asked to leave.   

“It is not Edna and Harry who have come to us – our friends – it is a disease,” says Agnes. And, indeed, “Balance” repeats some of Albee’s motifs about various plagues. Here are the dead or missing son, the overbearing female vs. the weak male, the unknown terrors.

It’s a disquieting work, leavened with humor that takes actors who convey what’s not being said as well as what is. As Agnes, the estimable Kathleen Chalfant is weak. Memorable in “Wit” and “Angels in America,” here, instead of the grande dame gorgon who controls the household, she’s neither commanding nor elegant enough, nor does she exact the bitter wit inherent in the character.

With one exception, the rest of the cast is also not up to the battle, giving random performances. Only Edward Herrmann, as Tobias, treats his role with the crucial ambivalence required. A milquetoast at the start, he arcs Tobias to indignant, though ineffective heights. From his story about his guilt over the death of the cat who didn’t like him anymore to his final aria that veers between asking Harry and Edna both to stay and leave, Herrmann is superb. A big man, he somehow shrinks Tobias into someone who retreats from life, spilling his seed upon the ground.

Chien-Yu Peng’s massive set perfectly embodies overwhelming wealth, while Alan C. Edwards’s lighting effectively captures the three-act movement from Friday sterility to Saturday hell to uneasy Sunday resolution.

Audiences don’t need to know anything about Albee’s life to understand and appreciate his themes of loss, fear, love and the difficulties of community. “They say we sleep to let the demons out,” says Agnes. “And when the daylight comes again, comes order with it.” At Yale, that journey from night to day is enlightened by Herrmann’s performance.

 

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