Here’s a lesson to frequent theatre goers who think they know a lot – don’t expect that what established, experienced artists have delivered in the past is what they will do next.
Two years ago, I saw Pam Mackinnon’s revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a production I admired, though not as much as a number of my friends and colleagues. In the plus column, Mackinnon and her cast – an ensemble put together by the Steppenwolf Theatre – did some very deep actor work that was sometimes revelatory. The characters felt genuinely like a group with shared history, and speeches emerged as though they had just thought of them. The emotional investment was obvious. In sum, this was the most real Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’d ever seen.
That was also the problem. Core questions at the heart of Albee’s play include: How much can we really believe? Is the psychologically catastrophic game the characters are playing a one-night-only thing? Or, has it happened before (and, most, likely, will again)?
For me, these critical elements of ambiguity – all of them departures from a realistic frame – were missing from Mackinnon’s Virginia Woolf. I should also say that Albee himself is complicit – his recent revisions to the script have reduced its power. (With the possible exception of Stephen Sondheim, Albee is the writer who should most be kept away from editorializing about – and, God forbid, reediting – his own earlier work.)
So… in a nutshell, what I expected from Mackinnon – who, by the way, has become pretty much the anointed Albee director – is that her production of A Delicate Balance would have similar virtues and drawbacks. She’d get marvelous, detailed performances from her stellar cast; and, perhaps, also sacrifice some the play’s elliptical, things-are-not-as-they seem subtext, in favor of something more straightforward.
So much for assumptions.
What we get instead is an evening where artifice overpowers art. It begins with Glenn Close’s as Agnes, a bold, confident tour-de-force piece of acting. Close doesn’t miss a trick, hitting the laugh lines as if they were gongs, but though her performance is a triumph of technique, it’s rarely more than that. Every moment feels calculated for maximum effect.
Maybe it’s what Close and Mackinnon are after. Agnes isn’t exactly the cuddly type – her steely self-control is, in a sense, the cement that holds together this prosperous but messy household. But, frankly, what Close is doing doesn’t seem like character choices – it’s all too fussy/actressy.
And she’s not the only one. Martha Plimpton, who should be perfect as the rebellious daughter Julia, strides the stage, bellowing her lines – on her entrance, she’s wearing what looks like a riding outfit (one of many mystifyingly weird costumes by veteran designer Ann Roth), and for a moment it looks almost like a drag turn – an imitation of Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, perhaps. (Another character does comment on Julia’s theatricality, but I don’t think this is what’s meant.)
Lindsay Duncan has the juiciest role – Claire, Agnes’s caustic, funny, drunken sister – also the biggest challenge, since her the part was famously played by Elaine Stritch in a 1996 revival, in a performance that would be tough to equal. To her credit, Duncan doesn’t try – she does something very different, a much smaller-scale reading that is especially effective in communicating the various stages of Claire’s descent into alcoholism. But in the end, she doesn’t really register – here, Claire seems from a different world, utterly implausible as Agnes’s sister.
It was, oddly enough, the presence of an understudy that made me realize the problems with the rest of the cast. John Lithgow (cast as Tobias, Agnes’s husband the family peacekeeper) was out the night I saw the show, replaced by Robert Emmet Lunny. Lunny gave a likeable but understandably tentative performance – I doubt he’d had much rehearsal or time to develop the character.
But – Lunny alone on the stage seemed to be listening to the other characters, and actually thinking the things he was saying. There is a lot of crying in A Delicate Balance, and in his case, there were actual tears. (I was in the second row – I saw them, just as I saw Glenn Close wiping at dry eyes.)
In fairness, I should also point out that A Delicate Balance is tonally a quite different play from Virigina Woolf – more elliptical and murkier, linked in some way to experimentalism, and in others, almost to drawing-room comedy.
Still, for much of the time, the archness of Mackinnon’s production put me off.
But it does pay off in at least one respect – when Harry and Edna, Tobias and Agnes’s best friends, appear, asking to move into their home. This is a patently absurdist moment – and one of the most difficult in the play to pull off.
The traditional interpretation of Edna and Harry is as doppelgangers for Agnes and Tobias. The roles are often cast by actors who could themselves play the leads, and even look similar. (I’ve sometimes wondered if we are supposed to believe that Edna and Harry are actual living people, or if for a moment we should think they might instead be apparitions – but I’ve never seen a production that tried that.)
What Mackinnon and her actors do, though, is equally intriguing. Here, instead of looking like mirror images, the interlopers are almost nightmare cartoon versions of what Agnes and Tobias might become. Harry (played by Bob Balaban) is a fidgety, babbling miniature man (this must be especially effective when seen alongside the very tall John Lithgow). Edna (Clare Higgins) towers over Harry, and looks like she could eat him for lunch. Higgins is both icy and Gorgon-like, precisely what we might find in Agnes if she were to lose some of that all-important self-possession. Both Balaban and Higgins are excellent – and in their scenes, the productions’ archness pays off.
And the play itself? I loved A Delicate Balance when I first saw it first, via the 1973 film. It seemed so sophisticated and textured.
Since then, I’ve seen three major stage productions. I treasure elements of all these experiences, especially individual performances – Paul Scofield and Lee Remick in the film; Elaine Stritch and George Grizzard in the 1996 Broadway production; Eileen Atkins and Maggie Smith in London in 1997; and now Bob Balaban and Claire Higgins. No doubt about it – Edward Albee writes great roles for actors.
In other ways, though, the play seems diminished – too many stock Albee-isms (the constant drinking, snooty language games, and a general over-reliance on hokey revelations); also, less substantive than I remember.
And yet – there’s something profound underneath. And I’m not going to stop until I find it. At the next revival of A Delicate Balance, look for me. I’ll be there.