Critics die. Audiences are reincarnated. The only true test of a work of art's value is its timelessness, and perhaps its timeliness. Timelessness is the ability of drama to say something about the human condition in a way that penetrates generation after generation of audiences. Timeliness is the director's (in this case, Michael Hall's) instinct for the right timing and audience. The Caldwell Theater Company's revival of Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Delicate Balance, has found its own delicious balance of timelessness and timeliness to create a sensational, thought-provoking, and at times disturbing production. As a dark comedy, the biting social commentary couldn't be more timely for a new-millennium audience. And the play's ability to raise truths deeply submerged under the characters' various layers of complacency, debauchery, and fear speaks to our most basic sense of humanity. As Paul Taylor from the British newsweekly The Independent points out: "One of Albee's main claims to classic status is his ability to speak the same words with a slightly different significance to succeeding generations."
The drama centers on the family and friends of Agnes and Tobias (played by Angie Radosh and Joe Warik), an older affluent couple in the Hamptons who are wryly intelligent and completely disconnected from each other and those around them. Claire, Agnes' antagonistic sister and a self-professed drunk, lives with them. In an outstanding performance by Pat Nesbit, Claire's specialty is stirring up old family arguments, unsavory memories, and mind-numbing martinis. Returning to the nest is 36-year-old daughter Julia (Kim Cozort), who is running away from her fourth failed marriage. On top of this, Harry and Edna (played by Bob Rogerson and Elizabeth Dimon) -- Agnes and Toby's best friends -- show up unexpectedly, seeking refuge from an unnamed fear.
Albee's script is so rich and highly textured in irony, metaphor, and dark humor that the language itself risks stealing the show. An actor must perform his or her own balancing act between the text and the character. This is the case particularly for Agnes, who is given several lengthy monologues, an integral part of her domineering personality. Angie Radosh's ability to move from these highly articulate and verbose tirades to her maternal and domestic duties keeps her character believable. Appropriate to a contemporary audience, these characters also seem to have their share of self-awareness and self-indulgence. As Agnes herself says to her sister, "I apologize for being so articulate." Claire, too, has her moment of self-admission: "I am not an alcoholic. I'm a drunk." These clever and narcissistic comments don't exactly endear us to the characters, but they certainly do amuse us.
There is an excellent balance among Agnes, Toby, and Claire that keeps Albee's highly cerebral script engaging. Claire is brilliantly bawdy and even a little redneckish at moments, which is a nice complement to the highbrow Toby and Agnes. Toby, as the henpecked and passive husband, is the neutralizer between the fiery characters of Claire and Agnes, but he too has his moments. His attempt to be honest with himself and best friend Harry is one of the most powerful scenes in the play.
Albee's genius for aphorism makes many of the lines sound like things that might normally be said about the work, for example when Agnes observes: "We submerge our truths and have our sunsets on untroubled waters." This level of self-awareness and simultaneous social paralysis is what connects this play to our current society and time period more than any other element of the play.
American culture is at the pinnacle of what could be called a communication boom. Chat rooms, talk shows, discussion groups, self-help groups, therapy, e-mail, cell phones: All provide the means to communicate. We seem to have the desire to do so, even the appearance of doing so, but when the lights dim, we are still alone, each one in his submerged truth, each one in his private world.
Likewise in A Delicate Balance, for all the verbal gymnastics and for all the emotional energy that eventually loosens from each character's well-groomed and educated guise, each person is ultimately rendered impotent. Julia's wrecked marriage, Claire's drinking problem, Agnes and Toby's separate bedrooms -- remain unchanged. Everyone returns to their see-you-at-the-club handshake and let's-do-lunch kiss on the cheek.
Albee's play The American Dream is considered one of the first and most important American contributions to Europe's theater of the absurd -- a genre stemming from existentialism, based on a deep disillusionment and the belief that there exists a draining-away of values and social consciousness. In The American Dream, the use of baby talk and nonsensical advertising jingles underscores the American apple-pie façade of social unity as a mechanism fueled by extreme materialism. Likewise A Delicate Balance crushes a similar illusion. Although the set's leather-bound books, polished mahogany, and endless bottles of vermouth echo the '50s, the emotional and social messages are more contemporary. The divorces, addictions, and betrayals are out in the open, but nothing has really changed.
This is the first Edward Albee work performed by the Caldwell Theater Company. Producing an Albee work is not merely an issue of buying the rights. To a degree one has to earn them. Years ago when someone tried to do an all-male version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee withdrew the production rights and has since created very strict rules for those who produce his plays. Albee must approve all theaters and actors, and the play must be staged and performed precisely as he wants without variations or changes. As Albee himself said in an interview referring to the production of Three Tall Women: "I would cut the director off occasionally when I thought he was veering too much towards originality -- by which I mean away from what I had done."
One of the benefits of living in South Florida is that there can be a demanding theater audience (retirees, New Yorkers, snowbirds, and others, many of whom grew up on good theater). In an interview with Steven Samuels, Albee said that many regional theaters choose things they know will be popular to please people and to avoid disturbing people. Fortunately for us a topnotch and mentally stimulating production of A Delicate Balance leaves at least this regional theater out of the mediocre loop. The play is reason enough to go to Boca and more reason to have hope in regional South Florida theater.
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