Word­play, cru­elty and a touch of the ab­surd in Al­bee’s “A Del­i­cate Bal­ance”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Joanne Ostrow

Ac­cu­sa­tions fly un­der a ve­neer of pro­pri­ety. Cruel truths are dished with a re­fined “dar­ling” at­tached. This well-ap­pointed draw­ing room is a war zone, where real­ism and the ab­surd meet amid re­crim­i­na­tions fu­eled by al­co­hol. Clearly, we’re in Ed­ward Al­bee coun­try.

In Al­bee’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning “A Del­i­cate Bal­ance,” di­rected by War­ren Sher­rill at The Edge The­atre, the char­ac­ters bat­tle com­pli­cated his­to­ries and each other. Through it all they un­der­score the dis­con­nects in hu­man re­la­tion­ships.

★★★¼ DRAMA

An un­ex­plained loss at the heart of the story teases the au-

di­ence. Word­play sub­sti­tutes for ac­tion. Agnes (Martha Har­mon Pardee), the lady of the house, is all so­cial graces, mask­ing a mul­ti­tude of se­crets and dis­ap­point­ments. Agnes fears she may be los­ing her mind.

Her in­nocu­ous hus­band To­bias (Kevin Hart), merely lis­tens and pours cock­tails. Agnes’ un­mar­ried sis­ter Claire (Emma Mes­sen­ger) has re­cently re­sumed drink­ing, which brings out the bom­bast and the ugly se­crets. Ju­lia (Maggy Stacy), the of­ten-di­vorced daugh­ter of Agnes and To­bias, has re­turned to the nest. Again.

A strain of self-loathing runs through each of them. This species of mod­ern, coun­try-club­go­ing Amer­i­can WASP is ex­pert at avoid­ing un­pleas­ant­ness. Ev­ery­thing should be smooth, ev­ery­one pre­sentable. Mix an­other per­fect mar­tini.

The crazy is ratch­eted to 11 when the cou­ple’s friends Edna (Abby Ap­ple Boes) and Harry (Steve Emily) show up seek­ing sanc­tu­ary from their hor­rific fear — an un­spec­i­fied free-float­ing anx­i­ety. “We were fright­ened and there was noth­ing,” they ex­plain.

Claire calls out the lies, Ju­lia throws a bratty tantrum, and the fright­ened friends move in. Mean­while, a brit­tle Agnes in­sists that all re­main placid, per­haps as placid as the neu­tral tones of Edna and Harry’s wardrobes.

In a par­tic­u­larly chilling mono­logue, To­bias dis­closes that he put down a pet cat years ear­lier be­cause he felt judged by her. “She didn’t like me any­more, it was that sim­ple.” He wants his cur­rent pets, res­i­dents of his home, to be­have nicely. Pour an­other drink and dodge.

The play, writ­ten in 1966, is truly time­less (the script de­scribes the set­ting as “Then or Now.”) Al­bee an­tic­i­pated the angst of what to­day are called boomerang chil­dren, and the name­less ter­ror ex­hib­ited by Harry and Edna has only grown in rel­e­vance. The work has aged as well as the scotch.

Sher­rill makes the most of the in­ti­mate the­ater; the bar is prac­ti­cally in the front row. His di­rec­tion has en­abled a re­mark­able cast to gel, giv­ing the pro­duc­tion power. No sin­gle per­for­mance out­shines the oth­ers. Pardee is per­fectly pinched and for­mal, re­fined and re­pressed as Agnes, pre­car­i­ously hold­ing things to­gether as the self-de­clared “ful­crum” of the group.

Kevin Hart is ter­rific as To­bias, the long-suf­fer­ing gen­tle­man who has been sleep­ing apart from his wife since their son’s death. Hart plays him as lost, qui­etly seething and try­ing to un­der­stand.

The for­mi­da­ble Mes­sen­ger brings per­fect comic tim­ing to her sly zingers. Stacy rages and em­bod­ies the over­grown brat Ju­lia. And Boes and Emily phys­i­cally evince the pro­found fear that drives Edna and Harry from their home.

The char­ac­ters are armed with tragic mem­o­ries and bru­tal re­bukes, which they hope to re­press via the booze. The re­lease of those mem­o­ries, over a three-hour run time (in­clud­ing one in­ter­mis­sion) makes for a won­der­fully bumpy night.

Pro­vided by The Edge The­atre

From left, Martha Har­mon Pardee, Abby Ap­ple Boes, Steve Emily and Emma Mes­sen­ger in “A Del­i­cate Bal­ance” at The Edge The­atre.

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