A superb, superbly-directed cast not only manage to survive an overlong, overly talky first act that perhaps no contemporary playwright could get away with, they go on to make theatrical magic as the Odyssey Theatre presents A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musings on the nature of family and friendship—and the responsibilities that each entails.
It doesn’t take us long to figure out that the “delicate balance” in question is the one maintained by 60something suburban WASP couple Tobias and Agnes—a delicate balance in their marriage, in the their relationships, and in the upper-middle-class suburban house they call home.
David Selby stars as the stodgy Tobias and Susan Sullivan as his starchy wife of 40-some years, a couple who despite Agnes’s “healthy speculation” that she may soon go mad, share a life that appears moving ahead on an even keel.
It’s Friday night in mid-20th-century suburbia, and that means cocktails and conversation, voices low in volume and language carefully cultivated, even when discussing mass murder.
Along for the ride is permanent houseguest Claire (O-Lan Jones), Agnes’s straight-shooting heavy drinker of a sister, staunchly maintaining that she is not “‘a’ alcoholic” (her wording, not mine), because “‘a’ alcoholic” can’t help herself and Claire is, she asserts, merely “a drunk” who could stop at any time if she wished.
Throughout the first of A Delicate Balance’s three acts, the cohabitating threesome await a visit from Agnes and Tobias’ adult daughter Julia (Deborah Puette), who despite having reached her mid-thirties has left her husband for the comfort and safety of “home.” (It should be noted that this is Julia’s fourth marriage and her fourth return to the nest, and therefore unlikely to have much effect on the delicate balance of Agnes, Tobias, and Claire’s lives.)
Then, suddenly, who should show up out of the blue but Edna and Harry (Lily Knight and Mark Costello), Agnes and Tobias’ closest friends, so close indeed that when Claire asks Tobias “Would you give Harry the shirt off your back?” he responds with only the slightest hesitation, “I suppose I would. He’s my best friend.”
Though unexpected visits may be part of other people’s worlds, they most certainly are not part of Agnes and Tobias’s, and though logic tells us that the reason for tonight’s surprise arrival must be that Edna and Harry are simply, if a tad out of character, passing by on their way home from the club, the truth, we soon learn, is something quite different.
Sitting home on a quiet evening, the couple found themselves suddenly overcome with a nameless “terror,” with the home of their “very best friends in the whole world” the only possible destination, the only place to find “succor, comfort, warmth, a night-light, a sureness that Mommy’s home.”
A theoretical shirt off Tobias’s back is one thing for a best friend to give to another. Edna and Harry’s moving in is quite a different story, and one hardly likely to suit a couple as set in their ways as Tobias and Agnes, especially when, the following day, Edna and Harry announce that they are returning home … to get their things.
With Julia raging about her room being commandeered by outsiders, the visiting couple insisting on their rights as lifelong best friends and intent on staying put for the duration, and Claire fanning the fires of discord in her own inimitable way, and with the number of cocktails being drunk rivaling those in Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf (and that is saying something), it may just be that Tobias and Agnes’s “delicate balance” has been upset irreparably and forever.
Though Albee’s nearly half-century-old play could use some serious trimming—Act One nearly sinks under the weight of so much verbiage (though Tobias’s monolog about a childhood pet is a keeper)—once Julia shows up to raise hell in Act Two, things do indeed perk up, as does the audience’s attention level.
It helps, too, that the first of the now 86-year-old Albee’s three Pulitzer Prize winners is seasoned with more than a few unexpectedly funny moments, the humor as dry as the martinis Tobias stirs.
An acerbic Agnes suggests that her alcoholic younger sister plan a vacation in Kentucky or Tennessee “and visit the distilleries.” Edna administers digs at the oft-divorced Julia (“You have not helped wedlock’s image with your shenanigans”) and a literal slap which she dryly declares “a godmother’s duty.” As for Claire, there’s nothing the habitually tipsy permanent houseguest likes better that to shock, as when she recounts her latest “adventure” shopping for a topless bathing suit. (“Stops at the waist, the latest thing, lots of freedom,” she has told the open-mouthed salesgirl.)
With director Robin Larsen once again working wonders as she did most recently at the Odyssey with frequent collaborator Puette in The Fall To Earth, it’s hard to imagine a finer intimate revival of A Delicate Balance, nor one with a more superb cast.
Selby has come a long, long way since this reviewer rushed home from high school to watch him on Dark Shadows, including an eight-season run in Falcon Crest opposite Sullivan, and the TV-star duo’s long onscreen relationship contributes to two of the town’s finest performances.
No one plays elegant and sophisticated better than Sullivan, and Albee lets the current “Martha Rodgers” of TV’s Castle do so with subtlety and finesse. Selby’s Tobias may initially keep everything under the surface as successfully as Agnes, but when Albee gives Tobias an “aria” to deliver in Act Three, Selby pulls out all the dramatic stops in a star turn that is simply mesmerizing.
Jones quirky screen persona has kept her busy in film and TV almost as long as her costars, and she makes the part of Claire ever-so watchably her own, spicing up the mix throughout with sly brilliance.
Costello and Knight underplay marvelously as surprise guests who seem ill-inclined ever to leave, with Knight’s sudden crumbling under the terrors that have forced Edna and Harry to flee to the safety of best friends’ home a show-stopper.
Most memorable of all—then again, isn’t she always?—is Puette, who gets to play bratty (and borderline-batty) this time round and runs with it, the 2010-11 Scenie-winning Actress Of The Year managing to turn bad-girl Julia into the character we find ourselves rooting for the most.
If ever there were a production design “dream team” combining talents for a Los Angeles 99-Seat Plan production, producer Ron Sossi has brought together that team for A Delicate Balance. The white-on-black silhouettes of Tom Buderwitz’s nifty scenic design suggest refined ‘60s/‘70s elegance to perfection as do Dianne K. Graebner’s terrific costumes, both designs with exquisite subtlety by Leigh Allen. (The fadeouts are particularly stunning.) Christopher Moscatiello’s sound design further adds to the moods being set by director Larsen and company.
Miranda Stewart is assistant director. Alexx Zachary is stage manager. Christopher Breyer is dramaturg.
The mere fact that playwright Albee granted Odyssey Theatre Ensemble the rare rights to stage one of his best-known plays speaks volumes about the reputation the Odyssey and Artistic Director Sossi have built up over the past 45 years.
Judging from the results on the Odyssey Theatre stage, his confidence has been richly rewarded.
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
May 15, 2014
Photos: Enci Box