A Delicate Balance

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

Manu Narayan as Tobias, Mia Katigbak as Agnes. All photos by Carol Rosegg.

“A Delicate Balance”

This Pulitzer Prize winning play written by the great Edward Albee tells the story of an upper-class couple stressed by the pressure of disruptive house guests. First, the alcoholic Claire (played by an acerbic Carmen M. Herlihy), who is sister of the wife, Agnes, alit. Claire had no other place to turn and has long been a burr under the saddle of her hosting sister Agnes (portrayed with eloquent and resentful reserve by Mia Katigbak). Agnes’s husband, the easygoing Tobias actually finds Claire a comfortable diversion from his austere wife. Then, the couple’s best friends, who have suffered from an inexplicable psychological fear, have sought a refuge with Agnes and Tobias. Finally, their boomerang daughter returns home after separating from her fourth husband.

The central antagonist is Claire, the resented guest, and her lilting sardonic humor prevents the depression from sinking to the level of Albee’s own “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Eugene O’Neill’s greatest plays. The somewhat farcical treatment of events also provides relief. But the playwright’s view of relationships, whether of family or friend, seems quite grim. Is all of our togetherness obligatory or forced or driven by ulterior motives? Claire is a leech who does nothing to ingratiate herself to Agnes. When Edna and Harry show up uninvited, their sense of entitlement as closest friends extends to moving in for an indeterminant period. What’s more, when the host couple’s daughter, Julia, returns home, they not only insist that they stay in her room, but they treat her with parental authority, causing the already put-upon Julia to turn furious. The delicate balance of Agnes and Tobias’s own fragile relationship is further upset by these intrusions. Must they favor family over friends or vice versa? Is there any way they can re-establish agency and their own peace?

Tina Chilip as Julia, Carmen M. Herlihy as Claire.

Through this all, characters are faced with establishing priorities in relationships, but sadly, the playwright’s pessimism leaves virtually none unsullied by self-interest, as opposed to unselfish generosity. Although much of the context of the narrative fixes on social class and dates the action (dressiness, formalities of speech and actions, cocktails), the friction of the issues remains relevant today, and the underlying message is chilling

The distinctive feature of this production is that it employs an all-Asian cast, something that we might more likely expect to be presented in the Bay Area. The most remarkable aspect of this casting is that there is nothing remarkable. Nothing at all seems unusual about these characters being performed by Asian actors. And the performers act with great conviction. The only issue of note is that while Katigbak probably possesses the greatest gravitas among the actors, her weaker vocal projection makes it difficult to hear her at times.

Paul John as Harry, Rita Wolf as Edna.

Another point of interest is the set design, as a proscenium arch theater has been turned into an in-the-round concept with audience on two sides, creating an intimacy that suits the play well – effectively turning an Off Broadway theater temporarily into Off-Off. The staging, while conventional in appearance, is quite creative with the stage raised above an apron of books and drinking glasses in separate rows (drinking cocktails is a constant pastime in the household). A huge staircase separates the characters’ intimate lives from their together lives.

Director Jack Cummings III has brilliantly realized the clash between the gracious externalities of elegant living with the hellish internalities that outsiders may never see. This is a play that always justifies revival because the underlying universal issues will never go away.

“A Delicate Balance” by Edward Albee is produced by Transport Group and plays at Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th St., New York, New York through November 19, 2022.

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