Family members and their friends rip each other's hearts out, pour alcohol on the resulting wounds and then go at it all over again in A Delicate Balance, playwright Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning look at relationships among the well-to-do. Like most of Albee's family dramas, the 1966 play, being given a solid revival by the Morrison Theatre Company, is alternately taut and tender, evasive and to the point, scathingly funny and frighteningly serious.
Like the pair of warring couples in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? none of the characters in A Delicate Balance seems concerned about giving his or her conscience much exercise. True, the family patriarch, Tobias, agonizes over some of the things that go on under his roof. But he manages to shrug them off, usually just before landing in the middle of yet another uncomfortable situation. And, while a couple of characters drift close to the realm of regret, they just as often wallow in and exacerbate their pain by lacing it with endless jolts of alcohol (a device -- along with controlling mothers and dead, talked-about children -- that surfaces frequently here, as well as in many of Albee's other plays). As a result, the most lasting feeling that emerges is one of pity for six fairly comfortable people who, for all their money, social advantages and witty ways, don't seem to know very much about love or friendship -- or, as the play's title suggests, the critical equilibrium between the two.
For the better part of three hours, the performers spar, tangle and play off each other within an arm's length of seating areas that are located on opposite sides of a tastefully furnished living-room setting. Director Rick Bernstein, who also designed the set and lighting, elicits several outstanding individual performances and shapes an impressive feeling of ensemble. Pete Nelson and Nita Froelich deliver dynamic renderings of, respectively, Tobias and Agnes, the seemingly happily married couple with more skeletons in their closets than drink glasses in their well-appointed sidebar. Theirs is the relationship one always looks to when trying to determine the depth of the problems at hand; Nelson and Froelich are also the performers whom one grows to rely on, without fail, for needed guidance, insight and understanding as the play becomes more complicated.
Paige Lynn Larson makes a welcome MTC debut as Clare, the tippling, lurching sister-in-law who, at a recent performance, had one patron chortling at intermission, "Clare is my kind of gal!" Kellie Rae Alexander hits most of the right notes as Julia, the wayward daughter who has returned home (again) after having problems with her fourth marriage. And Ken Witt and Suzanne Gagnon are by turns mystifying, scary and hilarious as Harry and Edna, the next-door neighbors and best friends who decide to spend the night at Tobias and Agnes's house because, they say without explanation, they're just plain scared to stay at their own house.
As the sextet exchanges insults and intimacies, the effect is one of being at a party with sixty or so guests, all of whom are eavesdropping on the host family's private -- and sordid -- conversations. It's an effective spatial relationship that draws us into the characters' dilemmas but also permits us to maintain some aesthetic distance from "those people." Until we slowly realize that "those people" are folks we know and interact with on a daily basis -- an idea that, more than anything else, is likely to unsettle quite a few sensibilities about love and friendship.
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