A storm rages at the center of the Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Although camouflaged in the elegant, comfortable mufti of the affluent upper classes, it’s leveling everyone in its wake while leaving the building intact, like a neutron bomb. Its name is John Lithgow. Don’t be fooled by the Fair Isle sweater vest, the plaid trousers and tattersall shirt, the leather elbow patches. Don’t get comfortable. Devastation looms like the unnamed terror that has seeped into the neighborhood as inevitably as martinis at l’heure de l’áperitif, as inevitably as the neighbor friends who have come to stay, as the grown daughter seeking refuge from the collapse of her fourth marriage gone south, as the alcoholic sister-in-law whose rants are, startlingly, beginning to make sense. Even as the dependable wife withers into something like absent bitterness.
And surveying it all, tolerating it all, the affable Tobias of John Lithgow smolders, bursts into flame and slowly grows cold. It’s as rich a performance as I’ve ever seen, the achievement of a lifetime spent commuting brilliantly between New York stages and Hollywood screens of every size. It caps a period of barely half a year when he has gone from playing King Lear in Central Park to this modern mountain of a role as if, like Hamlet, he was to the manner born. Focus on his eyes but watch his mask roughen and collapse as he bellows, “You belong here!” at Julia, his recalcitrant brat of a daughter, furious that those neighbors Harry and Edna have usurped her bedroom. Does Tobias believe what he’s saying? Impossible to tell. His reason has taken a detour into pure animal reflex, and that’s what’s inscribed on Lithgow’s visage.
”We become allegorical, my darling Tobias, as we grow older,” his wife, Agnes, tells him. “The individuality we hold so dearly sinks into crotchet.” Not Tobias for mere crotchetiness. Nor for Albee, either, who knew a vacuum when he saw it, and filled it with unnameable fear. Just as he turned the drawingroom comedy inside out with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with A Delicate Balance, which earned Albee his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in 1967, he seems to have taken a line from Philip Barry — “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” from The Philadelphia Story — and injected it with batrachotoxin. When Julia asks Tobias about the news of the day, he responds, “Small wars, large anxieties, our dear Republicans as dull as ever.” Only the last of those rings false today.
Nothing in Pam MacKinnon’s finely calibrated but emotionally uneven and infrequently unnerving staging measures up to the sheer power of either Albee’s dramaturgy or Lithgow’s inhabitance of Tobias. There is no better interpreter of Albee today; her revival of Virginia Woolf was nothing less than a revelation, in part because its ensemble was perfectly knit. Such unity is absent here in a stellar cast that nevertheless seems mismatched.
A tentative and sometimes halting performance by Glenn Close as Agnes defies the play’s demanding rhythms. In the central role of Agnes’ mad, drunken sister Claire, the magnificent Lindsay Duncan seems to have glided in from a Vogue photo shoot, atypically, if translucently, dabbing at the role. And Martha Plimpton as Julia would be more fitting in the aforementioned Philadelphia Story as Tracy Lord than she is here. Both actresses could have used a bit of sandpapering.
Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins are sturdy as the presumptive houseguests Harry and Edna. Higgins especially shows a mischievous nastiness when she tells the put-out Julia that she may nap in “their” room, provoking the anticipated whiny outburst in response.
Producer Scott Rudin has assembled the expected A team for the entire effort. Santo Loquasto’s lavish livingroom set cries out money (perhaps too much money — there’s no second guest room in this palace?), with its crystal chandelier and wall sconces, fat overstuffed furnishings and quadruple crown mouldings. Ann Roth’s costumes bespeak comfort and class (even if Claire seems a bit too pixie-ish for an aging drunk), and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting creates the comforting sense that all’s well with the world. Don’t believe it for a minute.