If you’re going to do an Edward Albee play, you better be sure you have your bar pretty well-stocked.
The “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” playwright loves to get his characters liquored up. It seems to help their deep secrets and personal demons bubble to the surface more quickly. You know -- the whole “finding yourself in the bottom of a glass” thing.
There’s a lot of that in "A Delicate Balance," Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning domestic drama that’s just opened at the John Golden Theater. In the stellar revival, from Tony-winning director Pat MacKinnon, the bar so integral to the story, it might as well be another character in the play.
It won’t get entrance applause, though. That honor goes to three-time Tony winner Glenn Close, who is making her a triumphant return to Broadway after 20 years away. (Her last role on the boards was as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1994 mega-musical “Sunset Boulevard”).
“A Delicate Balance” proves to be the perfect vehicle for Close. In the ensemble piece, she plays Agnes, a poised upper-middle-class suburban matron determined to keep everyone in her life in balance.
Close’s on-stage husband, Tobias, is played by John Lithgow, her co-star in the 1982 movie “The World According to Garp.” Tobais is the ultimate pleaser. A shell of a man. You get the sense that he’s retired not just in his career, but also in every facet of his life.
Agnes and Tobias have never truly dealt with the deep frustrations in their strained marriage. Like many WASPs, they’ve found escape through avoidance.
But they've never been able to escape their duties as caretakers. Even as empty nesters, their house is perpetually filled.
There’s Agnes’ sister Claire (Lindsay Duncan) -- a self-described drunk with a sharp tongue and a complete lack of filter. And Julia (Martha Plimpton, tough as ever) — their bratty, attention-seeking daughter who is returning home (at 36-years-old) after her fourth failed marriage.
Oh, and lifelong family friends Harry and Edna (Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins, perfectly paired), who stop by looking for sanctuary from an unnamed “terror” which has drove them from their home.
On the surface, Agnes seems like an easy role to play -- a cold, emotionless monster who always appears to be in control. But Close paints a much more complex portrait. Her Agnes is a woman carrying layers of sadness and loss under that strength; A woman who allows herself to breathe through humor and love.
It’s a transfixing performance. Understated, yet the glue that holds everyone together. And Albee’s words -- often presented in long, compound, poignant paragraphs -- will sound like pure poetry coming out of Close’s mouth.
The more showy role of the bunch is Claire (pictured above, with Lithgow and Close), to whom Albee gives all the funniest lines. Duncan delivers them perfectly. The British actress has embraced Claire’s dry sense of humor, and never falls into the pitfall of clichéd drunken overacting.
Claire is probably the most self-aware member of the family. She willingly drinks to not only escape, but also to avenge -- to pay her sister back for the pain that’s come with a lifetime of being viewed as an embarrassment. Duncan shows fragility in her portrayal of someone who is simply tolerated, not loved.
Those who saw Lithgow’s take on King Lear at the Delacorte this summer might be surprised to see him playing such a meek man. But Lithgow never lets us think that Tobias is a fool. He’s just walked away from the battlefield. And when Tobias eventually returns to the fight in a pivotal scene in the play’s third act, Lithgow leaves him raw, exposed and completely defenseless.
MacKinnon, who won a Tony for directing the 2012 revival of Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," guides these greats through the author's lengthy literature wisely, striking her own delicate balance between pacing and performance (the show clocks-in at nearly three hours, with two 10-minute intermissions, though never feels long). And Santo Loquasto’s exquisite scenic design is almost as detailed and compelling as the performances happening within it.
There’s a lot of mystery in “A Delicate Balance.” Albee never reveals some plot details, and when the curtain comes down, you’ll have unanswered questions. That can be frustrating. But you’ll certainly have a lot to discuss and unpack on the way home.
Or, you know… at the bar.
“A Delicate Balance,” through Feb. 22, 2015 at the John Golden Theater. 252 W. 45th St. Tickets: $60—$155. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.