With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
These are the thoughts on art. My bride and I recently took in a play in New York City. A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. I wrote about watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the lyrical acidity of the play. Though the two plays have much in common, written closely together, drawing from Albee’s life, featuring the life-weary husband and dominant wife, the loss of a child, and especially living with the choices we make, A Delicate Balance is less impactful given the current staging. What Woolf has that Balance lacks is activity. Constant chatter with necessary pauses give both plays the benefit of attention, but the former does a better job of instilling deeper emotions, trapping the audience in its destructive trance. A Delicate Balance has some faults that are correctable. Could Glenn Close and Martha Plimpton shout their lines less, seem less like severe soliloquists in an ensemble? Yes. Could the actors themselves move less stiffly on the stage when they actually move? Yes. Could the audience appreciate Albee’s language more, be available when the emotional gut punch comes? Yes. Could John Lithgow’s final heartrending plea sound less like his character Dick Solomon’s outbursts from his hit TV show 3rd Rock From the Sun? Yes.
I wish to blame the audience for so many things. Suspension of disbelief is not just a hokey term but a helpful tool for engaging with the art. If you are ready to laugh at the end of this play you simply haven’t been paying attention. Lithgow’s character has spoken so sparsely throughout, when he does speak; it clearly isn’t meant for comic effect. And when the audience laughs during his meltdown it cheapens the moment.
There is good raw material in this play. To my eye, a lot of attention was paid in the look, the artifice, than in closing in the space to allow the words to choke. I can appreciate by having the characters do less you are forced to listen to the words they say. Of course, in a drawing room drama, the actors have to be stellar to keep the audience interest. The two best performers in the play were actresses Lindsay Duncan and Clare Higgins who knew exactly how to take up space with their words, pauses and subtle gestures.
The other oddity may be the play itself, in which, let’s face it, practically nothing happens. The friendly interlopers’ entrance at the end of Act 1 brings about certain menace, shades of Harold Pinter, but it flattens out quickly, once again being reduced to confusing comedy. The odor of menace lingers throughout only revealing its true nature towards the end.
When you experience an Albee play, you swallow the pill. It goes down rough, reminding you that you asked for it.