Beautiful Ghosts

Edward Albee: A Delicate Balance, John Golden Theatre, New York City (Director: Pam MacKinnon)

By Sascha Krieger

Edward Albee has always been a playwright hard to pin down. On the surface, his best and most popular work such as Who’s Afraid of Viginia Woolf seems like a mixture of Noel Coward-like social comedy and Bergmanesque marital tragedy. Yet there is a reason why some critics have placed him alongside Harold Pinter as part of the second generation of absurdist writers. With the latter she shares the sense of irrational threat , with the older writers such as Beckett or Ionesco a view of the universe assentially empty and meaningless. No other writer has succeeded in marrying the estrangement that these very disparate writers brought to modern drama to a highly realistic style. Where Pinter chooses the subtle horror of almost Hitchcock-like thriller, Albee remains within the conventions of marital drama deriving from Henrik Ibsen.

Or at least he seems to. Because the facade is almost paper-thin and behind oit lies the not so subtle horror of a world devoid of meaning. A Delicate Balance, following on the heals of Virginia Woolf, is a prime example. Much less dramatic and dynamic than the earlier play, it certainly triggers accociations to early and middle Beckett and a drama of stagnation in which nothing happens. With the exception that A Delicate Balance chooses a realistic backdrop – an upper class living room. In her new production of Albee’s play, director Pam MacKinnon chooses a hyperreealistic stage design that breathes sterile coldness from the first second. A home fitting for the dead, it is inhabited by hardly living creatures: Agnes, chillingly portrayed by Glenn Close, is a human fortress, all etiquette an zero emotion, while her husband Tobias (John Lithgow) is affable, yet helplessly lost, having given up all ambition to lead a life worth the name long ago. They are beyond the marriage wars of Virginia Woolf, ghost-like creatures that have long stopped breathing. Close’s acting often has the subtlety of a wood-cut while Lithgow portrays the emptiness within with tzhe slightest of brushstrokes. adding a third dimension to Close’s two. Lindsay dunken is the alcoholic sister, coupling clarity with her own, violent response to the absurdity of life.

MacKinnon emphasizes the surface which results in long stretches of the play feeling somewhat stale. The problem with interpreting Albee as a re-incarnation of Coward is that the lack of suspense and drama can easily result in boredom. Duncan and Lithgow manage to keep up the interest until Bob Balaban and Claire Higgins enter as the couple’s friends Harry and Edna, escaping an indescribable fear that leads them to invade their friends’ home. Balaban’s icy matter-of-factness and Higgins’ brutal self-assertion hit the viewer with a force even Pinter’s destructive intruders hardly ever achieve. Particularly in the final act, MacKinnons Ibsenesque naturalism pays off: confronted with an inexplicable darkness, even Duncan’s Claire can hardly keep up the appearance of life. The warring couple of Virginia Woolf has turned into ghosts, the exquisite interior become as barren as any landscape of Beckett’s, the emptiness of social conventions, the deadliness of cowardly refusals to communicate brilliantly exposed. While the production has its weaknesses – it is too long and Martha Plimpton’s daughter is way too clumsily cholerical – its overall effect is one of chilling intensity. What could be more fitting?

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