‘A Delicate Balance’ Keeps You Thinking

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John Lithgow as Tobias and Glenn Close as Agnes. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
John Lithgow as Tobias and Glenn Close as Agnes. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

By Karen Isaacs

 I finally got to see the revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance now at the Golden Theater through Feb. 22.  It was worth the wait.

Let’s start by aknowledging that Albee is a brilliant playwright. His work is layered with ideas and emotions. Every good production of one of his plays causes me to think about it in different ways and consider new ideas.

This production does just that.  I’ve seen A Delicate Balance before in fine productions.  But once again I was thinking about these characters and looking at some of them very differently than I had before.  For that praise must be given director Pam MacKinnon.

If you have not seen the show, it opens in a definitely well-to-do living room in suburban Philadelphia. We meet Agnes (Glenn Close) and Tobias (John Lithgow) — a long married couple.  You quickly realize that Agnes makes the decisions and keeps everything under control even her emotions, while Tobias seems to have abdicated all involvement.  We learn that her sister, Claire (Lindsay Duncan) is living with them and is an alcoholic.  We also learn that their daughter, Julia (Martha Plimpton) has been through several marriages each time returning home and the pattern seems about to repeat itself.  But what upsets the delicate balance of this family is the sudden and unexpected arrival of their longtime friends, Edna (Clare Higgins) and Harry (Bob Balaban).  They have inexplicably been affected by “the terrors” and intend to move in with Agnes and Tobias.

Glenn Close as Agnes and Lindsay Duncan as Claire. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Glenn Close as Agnes and Lindsay Duncan as Claire. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Over the course of the weekend, these six people tell some truths and some lies, display hidden agendas all of which cause them to confront some aspect of their choices and the lives they live.  Has the “delicate balance” been upset?  Will it return to the equilibrium previously established?  Albee does not provide answers. That is left up to each of us.

This production is a blessed with a fine cast who is able to dive beneath the surface and subtly show us and hint at the emotions roiling beneath the surface.


Martha Plimpton as Julia. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Martha Plimpton as Julia. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

We have the three more restrained characters:  Tobias who is either extremely passive or depressed or has just given up.  Agnes is an example of the upper class WASP who buries emotion and does what is expected to keep things running smoothly with minimal outward conflict.  And even Harry seems intent on keeping his emotions in check.

But the other three women more than make up for the hidden emotions and oblique language of the those.  Claire proudly declares she is not an alcoholic but a drunk.  Julia seems entitled to come home and reclaim her old room whenever a marriage fails.  Edna acts as though the house is hers and Julia her daughter and that obligates her to tell her what she really thinks.

So what is it all about?  You can come to your own conclusions — are “the terrors” the fear of growing old or being alone?  Is there a hidden dynamic between Julia and Agnes that leads to the repeated failed marriages?  Is Claire the alter ego of Agnes — what Agnes would like to be if she could “let go”?

Many other interpretations and ideas emerge as you think about this fascinating play.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is just about an upper class WASP family.  It is not.

All of the performers are fine.  Each actor has found a unique aspect of their characters.  Julia is perhaps the least likable character — a 30+ woman who feels as entitled as a teenager and as demanding.  Plimpton captures that completely. Claire as portrayed by Lindsay Duncan likes to “stir the pot” and annoy her sister. It is perhaps indicative of Tobias’ passive-aggressive stance that he keeps replenishing her drinks.

I’ve never seen an Edna played as aggressively as Clare Higgins does. This is an Edna who is smug, angry and tactless.  Higgins is not afraid to be unlikeable.

Glenn Close gives us an Agnes who you see figuratively biting her tongue rather than respond to Edna.  She is a woman who feels both put upon and yet proud of the way she has kept everything in place and running smoothly.

Harry is perhaps the most underwritten character. We never really get a handle on him, but he too seems, as played by Balaban, to be unable to stand up to his wife.

Lithgow as Tobias brings his usual touch of humanity to a role that could be seen as passive. You sense a deep melancholy in him — has retirement been that unsatisfying or has his entire life been a disappointment?  There is some reference to a son who died years ago, but we never learn how he died or at what age.  At one point Agnes hints that Tobias may feel guilty about his death, but we learn no other details.

As the curtain was coming down, Lithgow did a small bit of stage business that was probably missed by most of the audience.  But to me it reflected  the character and Lithgow’s brilliance.  Tobias is sitting in his arm chair after Edna and Harry have left and Julia and Claire have gone upstairs.  Agnes comes over and puts her hand on his shoulder.  As the curtain is descending,  Tobias reaches up and puts his hand on hers.

Santa Loquasto has given a sense of place that helps ground the play as do the costumes of Ann Roth and the lighting by Brian MacDevitt.

If you enjoy intellectually interesting plays, A Delicate Balance will keep you talking for days.

A Delicate Balance is at the Golden Theater on W. 45th Street through Feb. 22. For tickets visit telecharge.

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