“I’ve never known whether to applaud or cry.”
The line from Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” reverberates out of the Odyssey Theatre as a fitting epitaph for this “vale of tears” commonly called life. But nowhere is its resonance felt with more vigor than among the audience of the play itself.
The work won Albee the Pulitzer Prize in 1967, partially one suspects as a form of buyer’s remorse on the part of the Pulitzer Committee for passing over “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1963, not even issuing an award for drama that year. Albee’s play was nominated, but rejected by the advisory board, placing it in the ranks of such works as “The Glass Menagerie”, “A Raisin in the Sun”, and “The Crucible” all passed over by the Pulitzer as well.
But what is one to make of this witty and gleefully vicious evisceration of the iconic white Anglo Saxon Protestant American family?
Though Albee would write for many years afterwards, in some ways “A Delicate Balance” feels like a final work, the last great roar of a once mighty lion at the conclusion of his reign. As with “Long Day’s Journey into Night” by O’Neill, the most magnificent closing curtain of any American literary master, Albee’s work has autobiographical aspects. The characters of Tobias and Agnes he’s admitted are based on his adopted parents, while the character of the tipsy Claire is supposedly modeled on his Aunt Jane. Each play has much in common. They’re essentially family dramas set in the battle scarred arena of the home, and both are soaked in alcohol with an undercurrent of madness present. Each ends with the darkness of the soul overwhelming the hope of a new day.
It is also undeniably Albee’s most Shakespearian work in both language and character. Like Shakespeare’s greatest works, the characters in “A Delicate Balance” are trapped in a downward spiral into the dark void of human nature. But Shakespeare, always the supreme judge of his audiences, knew when to call them back to display the pearls collected in the inky depths he’d sent them into.
Albee at this point in his career held no such regard for his audience. Perhaps he never did.
By the second intermission the audience of “A Delicate Balance” begins to squirm as if attending a magic show where some trick has gone horrendously wrong. Soon a slow disconcerting realization grips them that Albee is not calling his characters back up into the sunshine, but sending them deeper and deeper until finding themselves in the company of the passengers and crew of flight MH 370.
Any good playwright worth his ink has at least one solid theomachical play in him, in which he rages at God, and this may well be Albee’s.
The character’s names are brimming with religious overtones; Agnes is the patron saint of young girls hoping to find husbands, Saint Julia is the patron saint of torture victims. And the name Tobias means “the goodness of God”. The play is thick with Old Testament rumblings and Albee is certainly swinging at many demons even if the punches don’t always connect.
The point of this rambling is to convey that “A Delicate Balance” is not the work for the novice playgoer.
The production at the Odyssey directed by Robin Larsen is also more suitable for the refined palette. It is smart styled and splendidly staged, with all the nuances of Albee’s work fastidiously served up. In this effort she has gathered a matchless cast.
Susan Sullivan as the long suffering Agnes brings intelligence to her role, that defines the source of her pain perfectly. O-Lan Jones engages the audience to the right degree as the besotted Pluck of the play, while Deborah Puette as the oft married Julia introduces the spot-on level of chaos to the piece.
Mark Costello and Lily Knight have the play’s most daunting roles, those of Harry and Edna, the friends of the family driven out of their own home by some unnamable fear, who come to seek sanctuary with their friends. Both Knight and Costello possess the talents to entice the audience to sympathize with the humanity of their characters rather than be perplexed by the meaning of their presence.
Lastly there’s David Selby as Tobias who succeeds in expressing eloquently the wealth of strife and turmoil that Albee has laden his character with. So much has been written about this play and its meaning, that any words I might add would only be redundant.
In the end, it comes down to the very private conversation that Albee’s work has with each and every individual playgoer. And anyone willing to enter into that dialogue will find in this production at the Odyssey that the conversation is articulated with crystal clarity.
A Delicate Balance
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles CA 90025
(310) 477-2055 ext. 2
Performances: April 26 – June 15:
Wednesdays at 8 p.m.: June 4 ONLY
Thursdays at 8 p.m.: May 29; June 12 ONLY
Fridays at 8 p.m.: May 23, 30; June 6, 13
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: May 17, 24, 31; June 7, 14
Sundays at 2 p.m.: May 18, 25; June 1, 8, 15
All seats: $30
Pay-What-You-Can (minimum $10): Wednesday, May 21