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In Darkest Suburbia


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Court Theater

All happy families are alike, maintains Tolstoy, whom Edward Albee quotes in A Delicate Balance. But each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Not in an Albee play. His unhappy families are all pretty similar. When he wrote A Delicate Balance he was just plugging away at the same play he'd been writing for nearly a decade. Returning once again in 1967 to his familiar upper-middle-class world of impotent men and dipsomaniacal women, Albee finally got it right and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Although winning the Pulitzer is often evidence of incomparably stunning dramatic craft, it also often implies a certain predictable, mainstream accessibility, an ability to find the delicate balance between an original dramatic voice and standardized theatrical conventions. Say what you will about the misanthropic vulgarity of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof (notably, it was not awarded the Pulitzer, which ignited an explosion of controversy in the theater community), at least it was brutally frank in its exposure of the miserable lives led by the privileged classes of American society. A Delicate Balance is no less critical, but its anger is tempered and its critique takes a more socially acceptable form. Call it Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof Light. Same ideas, half the bitter taste.

Not performed in Chicago in an unfathomable 25 years (this according to Court Theatre's press materials), A Delicate Balance takes us inside the posh suburban haunts of the unhappily married Agnes and Tobias, whose efforts to deny the empty life they lead together are continuously thwarted by the intrusions of Agnes's bawdy, alcoholic sister Claire, their neurotic daughter Julia, who has just failed in her fourth marriage, and their best friends Harry and Edna, who wake up one night terrified of the dark and come to Agnes and Tobias seeking refuge.

The play is certainly a dark one, but whereas Who's Afraid offers knockdown, at-your-throat satire, this play is more delicately balanced. Its violent emotions are suppressed in favor of more subtle dialogue.

Like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof, whose plot hinges on mischievous games, A Delicate Balance soon turns into a game of musical beds, for Agnes and Tobias must ultimately decide who will be given shelter and who will be turned out. The conflict over whether to honor allegiances to family or friends soon becomes virtually irrelevant, for in Albee's world both are phony constructs. Sooner or later friendships and families crumble, and each character will have to face the terror that keeps Harry and Edna awake in the night. No suburban riches, snifters of brandy, or distracting conversation will be able to protect them. The delicate balance between sanity and madness, between safety and danger that all the characters struggle to maintain must ultimately topple.

In Albee's marriages, love does not exist; it is only a pleasantry designed to mask fear and loneliness. Families and friendships are maintained out of habit. The optimistic promise of youth is always replaced by middle-aged cynicism, and here, as in previous Albee plays, is represented by the leitmotiv of a dead son. Like the deaths of sons in The American Dream and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. the long-lamented demise of Agnes and Tobias's infant boy destroys any hope for happiness in their marriage. Romance, for Albee, is always ephemeral. Men become impotent like Harry or George in Who's Afraid or lose interest in sex; women turn to drink or try to stave off madness; marriages collapse in shambles or dissolve in indifference.

A Delicate Balance is probably Albee's most carefully constructed play; one marvels at the natural progression of its dialogue and the sturdiness of its internal architecture. Yet in our age of ubiquitous divorce and singleparent households, Albee's observations about the emptiness of uppermiddle-class ideals certainly don't come off as revolutionary. Who still believes in the sanctity of dad sitting around in a bathrobe saying, "Make me a martini"? Though one can admire Albee's technique, the world he is criticizing seems already obsolete.

Still, there are pleasures to be had in Court Theatres faithful, if somewhat stodgy, adaptation of this classic work. Although some of the performances are rather stiff, Nicholas Rudall's Tobias is a revelation--complex, intelligent, and always fascinating. Laura Whyte's vulgar, whiskey-guzzling Claire provides the production's few moments of hilarity as she cackles and sprawls over the stage, uttering her lines with a catty, Lauren Bacall-style savoir faire. Morgan McCabe's spoiled, tortured Julia has moments of heartrending accuracy. Terry McCabe's direction is well-focused and clean, if somewhat unimaginative. But to my taste the best part of the production is Claire Boddy's whimsical retro-60s costuming, which captures the styles of the summer of love. The multicolored slacks she has designed for Claire, with color patterns sort of like those on soap bubbles, are a magnificently clever touch.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Matthew Gilson.

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