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As long as the liquor cabinet is full, nothing can go too terribly wrong in the well-appointed suburban home of Agnes and Tobias in Edward Albee’s classic A Delicate Balance. And as long as Glenn Close and John Lithgow are filling the highball glasses, you can be sure that director Pam MacKinnon’s Broadway revival is in very good, well-manicured hands.
Close, returning to the New York stage for the first time in two decades, projects a Brahmin bonhomie in the face of upsetting developments on the homefront: There’s her alcoholic sister and longtime lodger, Claire (Lindsay Duncan, wonderfully spiky), her soon-to-be four-times divorced daughter, Julia (Martha Plimpton), and a nagging sense that Tobias has been unfaithful to her — though they’ve long had separate bedrooms. And then there’s the sudden intrusion of their friends Edna (Clare Higgins, who can make the unreasonable seem otherwise) and Harry (Bob Balaban), who turn up one night speaking of a vague, undefinable, but palpable fear — and promptly install themselves in Julia’s old bedroom for an unspecified period of time.
In Albee’s universe, there is often an external threat to the domestic order. But what matters to him is how characters confront it. For some, like Tobias and Claire, it’s alcohol. For Edna and Harry, it’s escape to the comforting hospitality of friends. For Julia, it’s confrontation and a desire to be heard. But for Agnes, confrontation is the one thing that must be avoided at all cost — leading her to some blathering and witty badinage about, for instance, the difference between aphorisms and epigrams. “There is a balance to be maintained,” she says at one point, “and I must be the fulcrum.”
The role of Tobias, a retired businessman who projects an air of boozy WASP entitlement, fits Lithgow better than the loud green cardigan he wears with plaid wool pants. The costumes, by Ann Roth, are bizarrely unflattering and hard to place in time period. That may intentional on MacKinnon’s part: The Playbill claims the setting is “now,” but there’s been no significant updating of the script. There are too many elements (the careerless women, the offstage servants, the dismissal of a late son as a “fag”) that seem more comfortably suited to 1967, when the play premiered. But that’s a relatively minor shortcoming in an otherwise fascinating and disquieting production. Grade: B+