January 21, 1998: Albee, A Delicate Balance

Haymarket, evening

Albee’s A Delicate Balance, with Maggie Smith as the alcoholic sister Claire. This is not a wonderful play; it does not rank with Albee’s best — Virginia Woolf or Three Tall Women or Zoo Story — but it is interesting in its somewhat absurd address of the experience of existentialist terror. Many people, including my London landlord, find it implausible that Edna and Harry, the closest friends of Agnes and Tobias, show up on their doorstep uninvited and unannounced to say that they are “frightened” and that they have come to stay. Over against this seemingly motive-less fear is the suggestion that the woes of the family — Agnes and Toby, her sister Claire, their divorcing daughter Julia — all somehow stem from the unassimilated loss of Julia’s brother Teddy as a boy. My companion thought the play would be stronger for a more thorough explication of what went wrong, but I think that would only have made the absurdist qualities of the play even more odd by comparison.

Finally, the play is only a qualified success, but partly because the dialogue is some of the best, most literate dialogue to be found in the theatre today, and partly because Albee has a genuine sense of the theatre and so can write characters eminently susceptible of being well acted. This is a very, very strong cast, though a bit inconsistent in their American accents. Maggie Smith is a star in a supporting role, and she seemed a bit self-conscious and apologetic for being given the star — i.e., the final — curtain call. But in the play she blends in well, does not attempt to steal the scene, and gives her all to the flamboyant, perverse, and pathetic character of Clare.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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