Waiting in Tobolsk looks for drama in the specifics of one royal family’s historical demise, while A Delicate Balance finds weight and resonance in the vaguely absurdist existential travails of a clan that’s archetypically American ruling class; they’re both intimate domestic dramas at heart, but that’s about all they have in common.

Local Tobolsk author Norman Allen has a script or two under his belt, but though he’s demonstrated an ear for language and a sure sense of dramatic shape, he’s still doing journeyman work; the story he stages here is slight, if sweet and sensitively told. Albee is American theater’s grand (and grandly bitter) old man, defiantly sure of his idiosyncratic vision, a powerful alchemist of words and a reliably scathing critic of the ways we avoid living and communicating. Rooted equally in the absurdism of Beckett, the annihilating metaphysics of Eliot, and the sparkling comedy of Coward, A Delicate Balance, the 1966 play that won him both critical brickbats and the first of his three Pulitzers, is a spectacularly verbose mix of anger and wit and melancholy, a study of suppressed fear and regret among the emotionally starved suburban upper middle class.

But casting it requires the same kind of precarious equilibrium as the bizarrely interdependent familial relationships its title describes, and though there are things to recommend about the American Century Theater production that opened last week at the Gunston Arts Center, the actors who inhabit the WASP foursome at its center aren’t too well matched.

Rena Cherry Brown gets the plum role (Elaine Stritch was Tony-nominated for it in the 1996 Broadway revival) of Claire, the drunk who lives with her iron-spined sister and hollow-eyed brother-in-law in Scarsdale splendor. They’ve all got problems (and each has at least a partial idea of what those problems are), but Claire’s vision may just be the strongest of anyone’s; Brown plays the part with wry relish and great style, whether she’s licking the vodka off a martini’s lemon garnish or squeezing an ironic honk out of an accordion as counterpoint to somebody else’s crisis. Her Claire is vulnerable and vicious, clear-eyed and heavy-lidded, sodden and sensible and oh-so-tired of pretending that she wants to be better than she is; it’s a centered, surprisingly moving performance in a part that could easily be played too broadly.

Joe Jenckes and Maura McGinn each manage moments of grace as Tobias and Agnes, whose household fills to bursting one weekend with friends, family, and fear about what they’ve let their mean little lives become. Jenckes is affecting in an agonized monologue about a cat—a speech that, under its horrifying anecdotal surface, pinpoints one of the play’s chief charges: that we get too busy with mundanities to be alive to the relationships we’re in. But elsewhere his performance tends toward the bland and unrevealing. McGinn, for her part, frequently seems stiff and uneasy on stage, unsure of Agnes’ daunting conversational arabesques—and unflatteringly costumed, besides. On the whole, the two of them aren’t up to the standard that Brown sets, and so the play’s focus is off.

Performances from the three supporting actors—Amy McWilliams as Tobias and Agnes’ daughter, using their home as a bolt-hole from another failed marriage, Marilyn Bennett and Joe Schubert as the old friends whose sudden arrival tests the limits of the family’s charity—range from wooden to unnecessarily wide-eyed. The production’s design, from set to furniture to wigs, is somehow expensive-looking and cheesy at once. Ambitious, yes, and intelligent, but not entirely successful.

Waiting in Tobolsk isn’t quite as daunting a proposition, and director Dwayne Nitz, happily, seems to have approached his material with a keener sense of style than Balance’s Gloria Dugan brought to hers. If I understand correctly, Norman Allen’s atmospheric family drama was created as a kind of theatrical Cliffs Notes—a primer on the last days of Russia’s royal family for the Signature in the Schools educational outreach program—and it shows a bit in the dialogue, which here and there seems self-consciously expositional.

The play’s lessons may be a little too easily learned, as well—the refreshingly ordinary Romanov children and the sensitive Bolshevik who guards them discover that none of them are as monstrous as they’ve been taught.

But Allen’s language is moody and gentle, marked by a delicate lyricism, and by emphasizing personalities and relationships he makes the play less a history lesson and more an intimate series of character studies—eldest daughter Olga Romanova, he points out, has her father’s intellect but also some of the autocratic air for which she faults her mother. He doesn’t lose sight, though, of the fact that this unremarkable sextet is in reality fairly far removed from the mainstream: He shows us the children’s ordinariness, but he keeps their parents relatively remote. (The tsar himself, in fact, doesn’t appear in the play.)

John Benoit is nicely understated as the soldier, who frames the action with uneasy monologues that acknowledge his complicity in the family’s brutal end; though there’s still the occasional outsize gesture or leer, this is the kind of relatively subtle work he was doing in the Actors Theatre’s Sticks and Bones a while back, and the kind I’ve missed in some of his other performances.

Rachel Gardner’s Olga and Sarah Schnadig’s Tatiana are intriguingly intense; Lenora Pritchard’s Anastasia and Christine Tivel’s Marie are less interesting because they’re less complex; and Roger Kraus (Alexei) labors valiantly but in vain in a thankless part that requires, in succession, excesses of cloying boyish enthusiasm and excesses of cloying noble suffering. The empress Alexandra, oddly enough, is a one-dimensional irritant, though Paula Gruskiewicz gives her a stiff dignity and at least a slight sympathetic air.

The Moonlight Theatre Company gives the play a solid, sensitive premiere production; Dwayne Nitz’s direction is never obtrusive, and the design, executed by Lou Stancari (sets), Anne Kennedy (costumes), and Adam Magazine (lights), lends the proceedings an appropriately autumnal air. Given the choice, I’ll take this—a tasteful, well-considered staging of an unpretentious play—over an ambitious mess like ACT’s A Delicate Balance any day.CP

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