A DELICATE BALANCE
September 22, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, a play that earned him the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, opened on Broadway fifty-one years ago this evening. Besides Robert E. Sherwood, whose works are rarely (if ever) revived today, Albee is the only other playwright to have collected three Pulitzers for drama. Of course Eugene O’Neill must be included as a three-timer, though he actually holds the record with four. By all rights, Albee should be tied with O’Neill, as his first Broadway play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was the top vote-getter in 1963 and therefore the official recommendation of the Pulitzer jury that year. Then something strange happened: higher-ups at Columbia University, a group designated as “the Pulitzer Advisory Board,” overrode Virginia Woof as the choice, since they (as overseers of the esteemed prize), held the power to nullify any decision made by the jury. Instead of giving it to another play and playwright, they announced instead that there had been “no choice,” which caused a huge controversy. It was clear that the award was Albee’s and cries of censorship were not misguided. Citing that his play had violated their charter, which required the winning play to reflect “American values,” led to two of the judges quitting in protest. It was an embarrassment that these academic clowns dismissed Virginia Woof, which was already being recognized as a bellwether for the American theatre. Their lack of foresight did nothing to change that perception in the years to come.
Four years after the “no choice” given in place of Virginia Woolf, the Pulitzers chose Albee’s A Delicate Balance, widely perceived at the time as a consolation prize. With his famed wit, Mike Nichols sent Albee a telegram that said, “Well, you can’t lose them all.” And though A Delicate Balance closed after a disappointing 132 performances, the committee unsuspectingly wound up choosing a play that went on gain the reputation as one of Albee’s masterpieces. Some critics, like The Guardian’s Michael Billington, even prefer it to Virginia Woolf and cite it as Albee’s best play. When A Delicate Balance had its first Broadway revival in 1996, there were certain critics who were forced to admit to having gotten it wrong. One was Vincent Canby, then in his position as the New York Times drama critic, but having once been the paper’s film critic of more than two decades, who wrote: “If, like me, you missed the original production, you may have suspected through the years that the play, like the chic-looking 1973 film adaptation, must be a needlessly obscure, sonorous bore. Far from it.”
Of course, there were those who dug in their heels and still thought it stunk, like the perpetually obstinate John Simon, who wrote of the original production, “Albee’s nothing is as dull as anything.” When reviewing the 1996 revival, Simon twisted the knife further when he stated: “Between Virginia Woolf (1962) and Three Tall Women (1994), both important, everything he [Albee] wrote is either poor or pitiful.”
The plot of A Delicate Balance is simple, yet complex. It is best laid out by Mel Gussow in Edward Albee: A Singular Journey, his excellent biography of the playwright: “Agnes and Tobias are an older married couple seemingly content with their life in suburbia, except for their problems with Claire [Tobias’s alcoholic sister who lives with them] and with their daughter Julia, who keeps returning home after each of her broken marriages. Suddenly the couple’s best friends, Harry and Edna, arrive uninvited, desperately frightened by an indefinable feeling of imminent disaster. As friends, they seek — and demand — shelter, and in so doing tilt the precariously balanced relationships within the family.”
What the play is about is terror, both in our daily lives and in the unknown fear of what lies ahead. Albee’s fascination with existential dread is not for everyone, but I have always found the play fascinating, even when I first read it as a teenager, just prior to seeing director Tony Richardson’s 1973 film of it. Though that version was somewhat uneven, the genius in the writing (untouched as a screenplay) still managed to shine through.
Richard Barr, the producer of the original production of A Delicate Balance, first sent it to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, then living in quiet retirement on their farm in Wisconsin. They considered it, but made uncompromising demands that forced Barr to look at other actors. John Gielgud and Irene Worth were approached, which made sense as both had recently starred in Albee’s Tiny Alice, a production that had the same producer in Barr and director in Alan Schneider. Finally, Jessica Tandy was set as Agnes with Melvyn Douglas as Tobias (a very strong and appropriate choice). But for some reason Douglas withdrew and the role went to Hume Cronyn, Tandy’s husband and acting partner of many years. Over time, the roles of Agnes and Tobias proved attractive to some of the world’s very best stage actors: Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield, who appeared in the aforementioned film; George Grizzard (Albee’s original Nick in Virginia Woolf) and Rosemary Harris (1996), and Glenn Close and John Lithgow (2014). London saw a 1997 production, produced independently of the ’96 Broadway one, that starred British veterans Eileen Atkins and John Standing, in addition to the formidable Maggie Smith, as the hard-drinking, truth-telling Claire.
A Delicate Balance most recently returned to Broadway in 2014, directed by Pam MacKinnon, who was hot off winning a Tony a year prior for her production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, imported from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Unfortunately, this Delicate Balance was generally considered to have not conquered the necessary heights of its required dark and scathing humor, nor its dramatic complexity. Critics used words like “tepid” and “restrained” to describe how it missed its mark.
As in all things “delicate,” the qualities that comprise A Delicate Balance require proper care and watering. Otherwise, you get a production that is, well … unbalanced. If its cast cannot exhibit a near perfect mix of tension and emotion, the play’s poetry and silences wilt and die on the vine. Yet even with that caveat in place, I, for one, look forward to the next time I see it on stage. Even if promises go unfulfilled, I’ll always take a chance on A Delicate Balance. It’s that good a play.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.