Being and Nothingness

The setting is the living room of Tobias and Agnes, a wealthy East Coast couple, and the play is a twisted descendent of the classic drawing-room comedy, complete with elegant furniture and a much-frequented drinks table. There's even a properly rebellious daughter. But no servants enter the picture, and no one is likely to come in from the garden holding a racket and crying, "Tennis, anyone?"

Edward Albee, author of A Delicate Balance, is himself the adopted son of a rich couple, and this work -- first shown on Broadway in 1966 -- draws on the observations and experiences of his apparently unhappy childhood to expose the emptiness at the core of these upper-class lives. His plot is absurdist and mildly unrealistic and his tone satirical, but this isn't one of those puzzlingly opaque plays. You understand both what's happening and the relationships between the people on the stage, even if those relationships are extremely odd. The action is absorbing and the dialogue often funny.

As the play opens, Tobias and Agnes are settling in for drinks and conversation -- that is, he's drinking and she's using liquor to punctuate her wordy, clever, theatrical monologues, detachedly musing on what it would feel like to be insane. Agnes's sister, Claire, soon enters. She's an alcoholic who resists the label, preferring to call herself a drunk; she seems to have moved in so that she can suck down large amounts of Tobias and Agnes's booze, and also because it amuses her to annoy her sister. This is a fabulous, larger-than-life role, played to the hilt by Deborah Persoff.

Somehow, Tobias and Agnes are managing to keep their marriage and their world in a state of delicate balance despite Claire's noisy presence. But there are further intrusions. Old friends Harry and Edna appear at the door with an odd story: They were sitting comfortably at their after-dinner table, they say, when they suddenly found themselves afraid. They have come to their friends' house for safety and comfort. "Can I go to bed now?" the normally reticent Edna asks, like a five-year-old. Upon the failure of her fourth marriage, Tobias and Agnes's daughter, Julia, also returns to the house -- as she has done after the breakup of each preceding marriage -- only to find Harry and Edna occupying her room. An overgrown child of forty, Julia wants comfort, too, but icy Agnes feels that comforting her daughter is a drain on her own soul. Soon Harry and Edna are carrying suitcases into the house and talking about a long stay while Julia rages.

No one in this group is admirable or nice. Agnes has no patience with Julia, who's a bawling infant. Claire seems to delight in upsetting others. Harry and Edna are oblivious to any desires or needs other than their own. Tobias wants to do right by his old friends, but there's an undertone of desperation, even subdued menace, as he offers Harry his hospitality. Tobias once had a cat put to sleep because it had ceased to love him -- or at least to purr when he placed it on his lap.

What is the terror that sent Harry and Edna scuttling from their own home? It must have been some glimpsed realization of the triviality of their own lives, and a sense of mortality's ever-approaching footstep.

Director Ed Baierlein, who also plays Tobias with a relaxed, almost indifferent ferocity, has pulled off a coup in his casting of the sisters. Both Erica Sarzin-Borrillo, who plays Agnes, and Persoff are, in a sense, highly artificial actresses -- though they're artificial in a very real way. Sarzin-Borrillo has a brittle, spun-glass quality with something darkly powerful at its core. She holds her own as the household diva with ease, even as Persoff stalks the stage, giving crazy Claire a patina of the kind of spunky class we associate with such movie heroines as Katharine Hepburn and Lana Turner. The energy balance between these two women is electric rather than delicate; paired with a lesser talent, either would have eaten her for breakfast. Katharyn Grant provides a welcome contrast as the warm-blooded, couldn't-care-less-how-she's-perceived Julia. Michael Leopard and Margaret Amateis Casart are appropriately low-key and determined as Harry and Edna.

All of these people -- along with their entire class -- are simultaneously stuck and teetering on the edge of a precipice. They pass the time with drinking, useless self-examination, spurts of malice and the occasional sortie into meaningless eloquence. And they amuse us quite a bit while doing it.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman