February 19, 2009

Field Report: A Delicate Balance, Arena Stage

(Still alive and blogging.)

Saw Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" at Arena last night on a comp ticket. Not sorry I went. But like most productions from DC's Big Two (Arena and Shakespeare Theatre Co), they tend to mute down the emotional intensity as not to upset the (largely geriatric) audience, while amping up the production values so donors and subscribers would know how their money was spent. I commend the cast for not being thrown by the din of dropped change (you'd think everybody paid with pennies), snoring, coughing fits and listening device feedback.

As matriarch Agnes, Kathleen Chalfant, the big name in the cast, was even-keeled to a fault. The pointed barbs at milquetoasty husband Tobias, alcoholic sister Claire and quadruple divorcee daughter Julia were largely devoid of sting, almost as if she was marking it through; clearly and distinctly spoken, but flatlined. Of course, maybe it was a bad night. Still, being a Broadway star and all, pencil in her Helen Hayes nom next year. (I'm hardly objective but Audrey Adams who played my Agnes in the community production I directed 10 years ago was more effective.) Terry Beaver, though, does deliver as Tobias, particularly his Act 3 explosion, and the rest of the cast do just fine.

Like recognizing like, the audience had no trouble identifying with Toby and Agnes, giving harumphs of recognition at the minutae of the upper-class life that Albee was adopted into, but came away a bit befuddled by it all. What did it mean? "What is this 'terror' of which they speak," they mutter while their mutual funds and 401-K's evaporate. I found it utterly ironic that the most timely line in the play, when Julia demands that Agnes explain her displacement at the hands of Harry and Edna, was cut: "Don't they have a house anymore? Did the market go bust without my knowing it?" Ah, we can't upset the delicate sensibilities of our patrons, for whom art is not a mirror of the soul but something tasteful to hang over the setee. Another cognac? Why yes please.


David Dower said...

Hello, John--
Ran across your post and thought I'd give you the backstory on the cut line you attributed to a question of delicate sensibilities. Not at all. Mr. Albee removed the line because, in this moment, it landed like a reductive and comedic rationale for the sudden onset of terror experienced by the couple. It steered his carefully crafted tone off key and would have let the audience gain some distance from their dilemma by laughing at them.
David Dower
Associate Artistic Director
Arena Stage

John said...

Thank you for the clarification, David. I do wonder, though, that even given that Albee's unspecified terror is not merely an economic one, if leaving the line in may have the opposite effect. I suspect more than a few members of the audience may be going through their own particular terrors in this age of Madoff, and might provide a further connection with the characters. While, yes, Julia is making a snarkily reductive jibe about Harry and Edna, it contains an eerie resonance that makes me wish he had left it in, maybe tried it out on a preview audience or two. Still, it's a single nine-word sentence. If I hadn't read the note in the Dramaturg's notes, I probably wouldn't have noticed its absence.

(I'm surprised that this blog is actually being read... good thing I edited some snarkier sentiments before I posted!)


Anonymous said...

Ah, the age of Google. Nothing's ever really unread. Snark is the prevailing voice of most of the writing in this cybersector on theater, as you probably know. Read the chat boards if you've any doubt! I appreciate your editorial restraint, certainly. Though I do not share your dim view of the director's choices and know the motives of the theater to be very different from your guesses about them, I respect that this is how they land with you and this is, after all, your blog so knock yourself out.