Three time Pulitzer prize winning playwright Edward Albee (Zoo Story) once said, “If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.” And A Delicate Balance, the 1966 work by the man that knows the ridiculous, is a +1 for the latter. This is what dysfunctional suburbia looked like back in the day, before Green Day and Tony Taccone gave it a rock opera spin decades later with American Idiot. In typical Albee fashion, it burns slowly, throws in a head fake or two, then oozes into a mesmerizing, intellectual stew. Last night Aurora’s 20th season premiere in Berkeley was indeed a blow-your-mind affair.
The set-up — a large, well appointed suburban home — is innocent enough. Agnes (Kimberly King), the 50-something matriarch, likes order and sees it as her duty to maintain family balance, even if it means occasionally barking military-like orders in between extended quiet. Her husband (Ken Grantham) might be a gentle giant, at least on the surface — he may not win a PETA man-of-the-year award anytime soon (“I was accused!”). Then there’s her sister and daughter; a one-two punch of imbalance. Younger sister Claire (Jamie Jones) is all fun and games, while she’s downing martinis, bourbon (and vodka for breakfast) or shopping for topless swimsuits. And daughter Julia (Carrie Paff) is coming off her fourth failed marriage.
That’s when best friends Harry (Charles Dean) and Edna Anne Darragh drop in.
Also in their later years, and perhaps also heading towards an “existential dead-end,” they bring terror with them; a plague of sorts. It’s a great secret that simmers through the second act. The human spirit is keenly tested. As is the liver. Drinking may well indeed be a character itself, what with all that booze fueling the proceedings.
With Albee’s dialog there’s much to unravel, to decode.
Words are strung together with musical precision. Coupled with well-orchestrated movement, slow scenes boil over, taking us in unexpected directions. Characters that appear one way on the surface, turn out to be at odds with our earlier assumptions about their behaviors. It’s juicy stuff. There’s a cloud of despair hanging over this family, and yet we don’t know if the enemy comes in the form of unexpected visitors (“intruders”) or from within.
Because the Alafi Auditorium employs an intimate thrust configuration (with every seat in the house at most four rows away from the actors), sets here are typically simple. Again, such is the case with A Delicate Balance. There are no projections screens, or fancy effects. Instead, it’s the words that matter. I was mesmerized by what well constructed dialog can do to a viewer. In this world of 140-character Tweets, and hyper headlines, it’s good to know that works like this are still being produced. It reminded me of Awake and Sing!, another stellar work (also featuring Charles Dean) seen here a few years back; minimal set, striking words, outstanding acting.
Speaking of acting, it’s remarkable.
Ken Grantham, co-founder of the Aurora Theatre Company, anchors the cast in a layered role. Can this man make a choice? Vulnerable is he. Carrie Paff also leaves a lasting impression (last seen here in Collapse) — has anyone defended a bar so passionately (“I want what is mine!”) and neurotically in the history of theater?
I’m not a studied student of Albee, so I can’t begin to assess how this work stacks up. It is as brilliant — but a dash less absurdist — as At Home at the Zoo, which I saw last year at A.C.T. in San Francisco. As a work of entertainment (and isn’t that what matters most?) I can say it stands the test of time, and that Tom Ross has given us a stimulating theatrical masterpiece.
A Delicate Balance
By Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley
4.5 out of 5 stars (must see)
Directed by Tom Ross
Starring Kimberly King, Ken Grantham, Jamie Jones, Anne Darragh, Charles Dean, Carrie Paff
Through Oct. 9, 2011
- Crowd spotting: Playwright Edward Albee. For the actors, no pressure or anything!
- Classy keepsake available in the lobby: Script from A Delicate Balance signed by Edward Albee. Only 500 copies. $500.
- With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday I wonder how such a play would be conceived today. The absurdist movement seems oh-so-Austin Power’s 60s to me – boozy, upper middle-class woes might be a tough sell.
- A Delicate Balance features a rare three act presentation (each act approximately 45 minutes long) with two 10-minute intermissions
- Anisette is an anise-flavored liqueur that is consumed mainly in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. It is colorless and, unlike some other anise-based liqueurs, contains no licorice. True anisette is produced by means of distilling aniseed. Pastis, a similar-tasting liqueur, is made by maceration, using a combination of aniseed and licorice. (source: Wikipedia)
[Photo: David Allen]