It's a Fearful Life

What a wrenching workout Stages gives to Edward Albee's searing Pulitzer Prize-winner, A Delicate Balance. With a withering grace, an overwhelming tenacity and a biting humor -- not to mention a tantalizing wisdom, since Albee himself lent a hand to this production -- Stages ensures that what was a stunner in 1966 when it debuted remains funny, insightful and sublime three decades later. For anyone, but especially for students of the theater, this is a must-see.

Like the best of Albee's considerable body of work, A Delicate Balance tells a deceptively simple story, one that doesn't as much percolate as boil, cool, then suddenly bubble back up again. In costumes that are as natty as the characters are messy, and on a drawing room set that's as forbidding as it is impressive, the Stages ensemble for the most part knows what they need to do to catch the meaning, and spirit, of Albee's plunge into the horrors that encroach on daily life. Here, his main characters are a husband and wife, Tobias (Jerome Kilty) and Agnes (Jeanette Clift George), who are seen as a refuge by Agnes' sister Claire (Bonnie Gallup), their daughter Julia (Andrea Birkman) and their two best friends, Harry (Charles Krohn) and Edna (Sharon Bennett). Over a night and a morning, everyone shows up at Tobias and Agnes' home, either fleeing something or in search of something. But Tobias and Agnes have their own problems, their own fears, and in the clash of his characters, Albee finds a dramatic voice that's unmistakably his own.

As the stolid, reluctant Tobias, a well-groomed, middle-aged husband who walks gingerly through life (or at least tries to), Kilty expertly navigates from ineffectuality to apoplexy. The immobilizing pain Kilty's Tobias emits when having to take sides in any matter; the disintegrating confession he'd rather not make about why he hasn't touched his wife for decades; the ire he shuts off just at the point of explosion -- it all adds up to a man who throbs with stilted life.

Nearly as masterful is George as Agnes. Calling herself a combination nanny and drill sergeant, she tries to keep her family in shape, no matter what the cost. Cool to the point of crispness, George is insistently resolute, a stickler who merely thinks she's reasonable, and a pillar of strength who nevertheless wants shoring up. She makes Agnes' climactic exchange with Tobias about how barren their marriage has become terribly moving. But what prevents George from completely inhabiting her hardened but hurting character is the genteel flourish she gives her vocal delivery. She expends too much energy embellishing words that have a trill all their own.

As Claire, Agnes' alcoholic sister, Gallup is compellingly haggard. She sees everyone for who they are -- everyone, that is, except for her lonely, ravaged self. So sardonic is Gallup that when she enters at a pivotal moment with an accordion, she imbues the scene with a wickedness akin to the parlor games from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Albee's other great dark domestic comedy.

As Harry and Edna, Agnes and Tobias' best friends who arrive seeking sanctuary from a fear that they can't explain, Krohn and Bennett get to the heart of Albee's interest in free-floating terror, a terror that exists simply because we exist. Krohn's clipped admissions of how something intangible has put an odd, fundamental strain on him are perfectly on point, while Bennett is convincingly stalwart but shaken as his proper, imposing wife. The frightening and formless shock that Harry and Edna have received is enigmatic, a core of nothingness that reaches down into another core of nothingness, one that ultimately, Albee intimates, permeates us all.

The play's weak link is Birkman as Julia, Agnes and Tobias' daughter, who's come home after her fourth failed marriage. As written, Julia has no moorings, but Birkman is so stormy -- wailing and screaming, pouting and flailing -- that she gets lost. Her histrionics in her scenes with Harry and Edna nearly trivialize one of Albee's many provocative questions, to wit: who has more rights to Agnes and Tobias, their grown daughter or their lifelong friends? Birkman has Julia deal with her none-too-nurturing parents by emoting to high heaven. She apparently wants to play Julia as immature, but she so forces the issue that she comes off as a (not very persuasive) brat. She doesn't bring the others down, but she isn't lifted up by them, either.

Sidney Berger's direction emphasizes not just how fraught with problems this one night is for people who have trouble apologizing to others (since they don't ever really apologize for themselves), but also how humorous things are. Recognizing Albee's obsession with exposing people at their worst to discover what, if anything, can then be done, Berger makes the atmosphere raw and naked. Self-realizations and wounds become nearly synonymous. Berger strips the characters so fully that the effect almost seems indecent or perverse -- which is exactly what Albee intends.

But Berger -- and Albee -- also make it clear that laying things bare can, if not redeem, at least serve as a way to steel up for another day. The production is as ambiguously compassionate as the text. It's also no small accomplishment how engaging Berger makes Albee's sometimes sophomoric plays on words; Berger always figures out how to add substance to Albee's occasionally lightweight linguistic ponderings.

Berger does leave some important elements underdeveloped. A certain cycle of ferocious relentlessness is missing. The characters don't really tear at each other as savagely as the text requires. Still, more important is what Berger does right. He gets his cast to flinch with apprehension, complicity, injury and revulsion at virtually every exchange; it turns this production into one of the most significant of the year. This Balance is one of only two that Albee allowed to be mounted on the eve of a major New York revival of the play. Stages is justifiably proud of the honor. And Albee can be justifiably proud of how Stages has honored him.

Why would Infernal Bridegroom Productions mount Othello when a star-studded movie version of the Shakespearean drama has just been released? Why risk any Shakespeare now, when no less than Corin and Vanessa Redgrave are currently heading up Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra in repertory at the Alley? And why produce a play in winter in the unheated, uninsulated Commerce Street Art Warehouse?

Such questions damn this poorly conceived, more poorly staged and even more poorly executed show. I had enough almost from the start, when Desdemona's father appeared in what seemed to be drag. I say "seemed" because, even though cast members occasionally brandish a lit torch (why? who knows?), the lighting is so dim that the audience can rarely discern faces. Whatever idea director Alexander Marchand had about using shadows fails, especially with a cast that demonstrates little ability in speaking Shakespearean.

Carnival music is heard when Othello recounts how he and Desdemona fell in love. Lead actors also take on minor parts. The text is butchered, not trimmed. Blocking is so clunky that the stage feels empty, even during populous scenes. Costumes are across the map and span centuries. There's no passion, no intrigue, no threat, no foreboding, no momentum, no tragedy -- there's no anything in Marchand's three-hour debacle except dreariness. Even the set is a shambles.

In J.D. Hawkins' misguided interpretation of the part, Othello evolves from hip headiness to stealthy caution to coiled outrage. Hawkins is somewhat better toward the end, when he gives the jealous Moor a pacing physicality, but it's not enough. He lacks presence and fails to command the stage. Though Vicki Weathersby attains some poignance as Desdemona when her character is prostrate and pleading, the actress is mostly awkward in her role. And as for that manipulating villain Iago, the most that can be said of Greg Dean is that he's undifferentiatingly cagey. The rest of the cast deserves no mention. For that, they should be thankful.

A Delicate Balance plays through February 4 at Stages, 3201 Allen Parkway, 527-8243.

Othello plays through February 3 at Commerce Street Art Warehouse, 2315 Commerce Street, 520-9720.

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Peter Szatmary