By now we have all been exposed to the famous first line of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." If that is the case, great American drama is built on the unhappy family with Eugene O'Neill perhaps being the master and following in his footsteps Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and others. And when one looks over the offerings of Dramaworks over the years, some of their finest productions are such family dramas, most recently All My Sons, The Effect of GammaRays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, and the forthcoming, A Raisin in the Sun. I suppose writing a drama about a happy family, would be drama-less, so what's the sense?
This might be Albee's most enigmatic work, with long sometimes disjointed monologues, perhaps less explosive than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with a deep, deep undertow of modern-day family angst. Tobias and Agnes, living their upper class existence in 1960's suburban Connecticut, along with Agnes' alcoholic sister, Claire, suddenly have visitors, their old and close friends, Harry and Edna. Their friends are in an existential plight, fleeing some unexpected terror in their own home. They have come to move in -- permanently. And into the pot let's stir the arrival of Julia, Tobias' and Agnes' thirty six year old infantile daughter who is returning home after her fourth divorce. (They had a son who died in childhood, just another element in the family's dark past.) It is the perfect mix for the kind of edgy drama that distinguishes the work of one of our greatest playwrights.
And it is from these damaged characters that the drama springs, so dependent on the performances of the actors. In that regard, as we learned at the "Knowledge and Nibbles luncheon" before last night's preview performance, Albee, even at the age of 84, has not relinquished much control over his plays. He has final say over the selection of actors, the design of the set, and the venue of course, wanting the most professional environment possible. At that same luncheon it was pointed out that Albee said "When you’re writing a play, you’re attempting the impossible. When you’re directing it, you must do only what is possible, and the impossible must vanish."
So, did Dramaworks vanish the impossible? It is a "delicate balance" between the playwright and the performing team to make a theatrical masterpiece, and Albee and Dramaworks have all the right stuff. Albee's dark view of the human condition emerges with absurdest clarity.
And a word about the set by Michael Amico, an anesthetically perfectly proportioned living room/library in a staid Connecticut home, the bar being a focal point, downstage right. It is of course the first thing the audience takes in as it is being seated, setting a mental marker for what unfolds.
Albee throws down the gauntlet with Agnes saying "I find most astonishing the belief that I may, very easily, as they say, lose my mind one day." Tobias replies while mixing a drink (there are countless drinks mixed and consumed during the production): "We will all go mad before you." One gets the sense as the first act unfolds that the entire family is mad at the starting gate. In fact, the play ends the following morning with Agnes making reference to those opening lines, noting that it is a new day. It might be on the calendar, but their lives go on as before.
There are so many themes in the play, particularly the nature of love and friendship. Is friendship love? Does one have to love one's own blood? What are the obligations of love? At one point, Claire says to Agnes, "Tobias loves you, you love Julia, Julia loves me, and I love Tobias." Maybe a Venn Diagram would reveal that there is some kind of "love" between the two sisters, Claire and Agnes, but Claire has already said she would like to see Agnes dead. But perhaps that emotion can be construed as a loving gesture in the context of this play. One only has to listen to Tobias' disturbing monologue about a cat that fell out of love with him and he had put to sleep.
The Broadway veteran Maureen Anderman plays the highly controlled, haughty, Agnes, delivering her acerbic wit with great ease. Her relationship with her sister, Claire, vacillates from an uneasy truce on the one hand to her attacks on her alcoholism: "If you want to die, don't take your whole life doing it." Claire is brilliantly played by the Dramaworks veteran, Angie Radosh, who in spite of her serious drinking is probably the sanest person in the play, somewhat inhabiting the role of a Greek Chorus. Another Dramaworks old hand, Dennis Creaghan, plays Tobias, capturing a man in the middle of this family/friend crisis, bewildered by it all, expected, as the man of the house to resolve the issue, culminating in one of the most contradictory and demanding monologues in American theatre when confronting his friend, Harry. Rounding out the cast are Anne Bates as the daughter, Julia, who always seems to prefer the "comfort" of her dysfunctional family to any of her spouses, and two other Dramaworks pros, Laura Turnbull as Edna and Rob Donohoe as Harry play their roles of lost, bewildered, anxiety infested (no, "plague contaminated" as accused by Agnes) "friends" to a tee, friends who insist they have "rights."
Searing and disturbing, but with rich, nonlinear language that really warrants reading the script to more fully understand it, this might not be a play for everyone, but in the annals of American theatre it doesn't get much better than a work by Edward Albee and a production of it by Dramaworks. You will never meet more disconnected characters on one stage, but the Director, Bill Hayes, pull them together in this haunting production. Perplexing at all times, A Delicate Balance taps the angst in us all.