When it comes to nothingness in the theater, Pinter is generally viewed as a master craftsman, Ionesco as a genuine master, and Beckett as God(ot), while Edward Albeearguably their peer when it comes to conjuring stage vacuumsis given shorter shrift. His peculiarly American brand of nothingness can leave audiences feeling just as empty as the continental variety, but somehow that’s rarely enough for his critics. For some reason, Albee’s nothing is expected to amount to something.
Possibly this is because his best-known works, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, are usually produced as realism, their living-room settings featuring bars stocked with alcohol enough to explain the bizarre behavior of their characters. That’s technically true of the tepid revivals currently in repertory at the Clark Street Playhouse, but, maybe because of budget constraints, the full trappings of realism aren’t quite realized, and as your mind wanders during the desultory final hour of each play, you may find yourself musing, as I did, about their place in the Albee canon.
Designer Faz Besharatian has provided couches, chairs, rugs, and prominent barsa liquor-filled globe for Woolf, a crystal-topped buffet crammed with bottles for Balancebut he’s only brushed in the walls that trap the characters in their respective domestic hells. Photomontages in bright primary colors hang from the roof beams, framing the action and suggesting a world outside where life is less rigidly defined by betrayal and loss. The performances on Clark Street are mostly less than compelling (in Balance, they’re actively inept), but in the auditorium’s wide-open spaces, the naturalistic claustrophobia that usually attends Albeean battles is replaced by an intriguing openness.
The effect is to remind audiences that most of the playwright’s work is absurdistthat the menacing void present in such ’50s and ’60s plays as The Zoo Story and Tiny Alice is no less present decades later in The Play About the Babyand that treating Woolf and Balance as substantive, void-free aberrations may well be to miss the author’s point. Certainly, George and Martha, the bile-spewing academics who bellow their way through Woolf, are as adept at killing time as Didi and Gogo are in Waiting for Godot. And something similar could be said of Tobias and Agnes, the more reserved blank slates who play host in Balance.
Make that reluctantly play host, because unlike George and Martha, who crave an audience for their bouts of mudslinging, Tobias and Agnes prefer to be lonely and quiet. They figure they deserve solitude as reward for some four decades of wedded civility, but they don’t often get to savor it because Claire, Agnes’ rowdy, alcoholic sister, has moved in with them, and Julia, their grown daughter, has become a sort of a marital recidivist, reclaiming her room upstairs whenever one of her relationships goes sour. Julia’s due for another homecoming as the play begins, but before she arrives, the already delicate balance in the household is upended by the
equilibrium-shattering arrival of neighbors Harry and Edna, who’ve been seized by an inexplicable terror in their own living room down the street. Terror of what, no one can glean. Still, they have no intention of returning home, as becomes clear when they announce that they’re calling in their chits as the host couple’s best friends and expect to be allowed to stay indefinitely. Tobias and Agnes then have to decide whether to let them.
Now, this “Am I my neighbor’s keeper?” question is essentially absurd, if not quite absurdist. Friends who make that sort of demand would, if they had any social sense at all, be aware that they were straining the bounds of friendship. And most sane people would point them in the direction of the nearest hotel. But Albee presents the situation with a straight faceand lets it play out in a series of increasingly preposterous showdowns.
Though the author took home a Pulitzer Prize for A Delicate Balance in 1967, most observers regarded it as belated recognition that he should have received one for Woolf four years earlier. The drama’s critical reception was decidedly mixed on Broadway, and subsequent productions have only occasionally made a case for it, usually by leaning heavily on the eerie nature of the unexplained fear that grips Harry and Edna and letting it slowly infect the others. I vaguely recall an ’80s production at Arena Stage making much of the host couple’s conviction that their friends had brought a “plague” into their homea characterization that resonated differently in the early years of the AIDS crisis than it must have in 1966.
Kerri Rambow’s staging for the Keegan and Fountainhead Theatres is too scattered to attempt anything that coherent, settling instead for listing disquieting ’60s events (“race riots in Chicago,” “Mao launches Cultural Revolution,” “Warren Report published”) in the program and introducing scenes with music from the periodincluding both “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “My Funny Valentine.” Matters are not helped appreciably by the cast’s adoption of a bewildering array of acting styles and affectations. Annie Houston appears to have conceived her primly judgmental Agnes as a WASPy matron from an A.R. Gurney comedy of manners, Jim Jorgensen’s moody Tobias would only be truly at home in a Sam Shepard slugfest, and Charlotte Akin’s boozy Claire feels like a refugee from TV’s Roseanneespecially when she dons a fright wig and tutu and picks up an accordion. The others might as well have wandered in from an amateur production of Agatha Christie.
None of which does much to make a case for threats, or voids, or even Albee’s play, which you’d think would have picked up reverberations from a post-9/11 world in which delicate balances have been upended, and unreasoning fear doesn’t seem all that unreasonable. CP