City Paper is not for tourists
In the 1960s, Edward Albee had lots of company in articulating humankind’s deepest fears; now, he stands astride the menacing theatrical void more or less alone. His foremost European comrades—Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter—have all given up the ghost, and the theater has otherwise headed off in more social directions. But the great American absurdist is still writing, still warning, still exploring cosmic vacuums, and still murmuring encouragement when major companies revive his earlier work. He stopped by Arena Stage to do precisely that during rehearsals of A Delicate Balance, his 1967 Pulitzer-winner about a patrician household thrown off its stride by a nameless dread—encouragement much needed, apparently, as that dread isn’t remotely conjured onstage. It is, however, handsomely alluded to in a towering, bookshelf-lined manse so richly appointed you’ll want to move right in—which is more or less what Harry and Edna (James Slaughter and Helen Hedman) propose to do. They’ve been abruptly and inexplicably seized by terror in their own manse just down the street, and rather than checking into a hotel or calling the police, they have, with no notice or explanation, decided to cash in their best-friend chits and stay here. Indefinitely. Never mind that amiably longsuffering Tobias (Terry Beaver) and congenitally frosty Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) are already playing host to a grown daughter (Carla Harting) who’s in furious retreat from her fourth marriage, as well as to Agnes’ boisterously alcoholic sister Claire (Ellen McLaughlin). Dread is dread, right? And who, after all, depends on the kindness of strangers any more? Albee presents this faintly preposterous “Am I my neighbor’s keeper” situation with an entirely straight face, and, rather than developing it, simply reiterates its premise in a series of increasingly unlikely showdowns. Which means a director would be well advised to do more than simply put the play up onstage and hope for the best, though that’s pretty much what Pam MacKinnon’s done in Arena’s attractively unengaging production. While Agnes speaks of a “plague” being brought into her comfortable home, no sense of danger—emotional, physical, cosmic, what have you—lurks onstage or off. Eight years of color-coded threat-levels and six months of economic catastrophe notwithstanding, there’s not the faintest whiff of contemporary resonance to the author’s unnamed menace. And if the production’s point is that plagues can be kept at bay by sheer civility—well, that’s a bit tepid, no? You’ll guess it’s going to be a long evening when the usually reliable Chalfant pitches Agnes’ opening monologue straight out front, musing lightly—and so airily that the sense of her sentences barely registers—on whether she might be going mad. Beaver’s avuncular, well-meaning Tobias fares better, and McLaughlin’s convention-flouting Claire delivers the author’s snappiest zingers with boozy flair. But threats, voids, unreasoning fear, balances delicate or otherwise? They’re nowhere to be found.