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Gambit Weekly Balancing Act

By Dalt Wonk

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  I apologize that my nature is such to bring out the full force of your brutality," says Claire, the unrepentant drunkard, as she makes her first entrance in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, now on view at Rivertown Rep.

"I apologize for being articulate," rejoins Agnes, her sister.

Agnes actually says a good deal more (for she is not only articulate but garrulous), but this barbed riposte is at the heart of her reply. And it is also at the heart of what is most enjoyable in the play: an insistence on the delight of language.

Albee seems to have set for himself the task of creating a sort of avant-garde drawing room comedy. A dark comedy, and one with serious aspirations, but a comedy nonetheless.

The literate tone is set by the central characters, all members of a well-educated, upper-middle-class family who navigate their classically dysfunctional relationships amid a glimmering torrent of words. Not that Albee makes the neophyte's mistake of substituting speeches for action. Many of the exchanges are short, pithy and connected by an amusing submerged logic of inner compulsions and past references.

The characters have as part of their fundamental makeup a very special gift of gab. For instance, when Julia, the 36-year-old daughter, returns home from the wreckage of her fourth marriage, her father berates her for coming back to "nestle and whine." She retorts that "as she reached her somewhat angular adolescence," he "sank to a cipher" and then became a "gray non-entity." This is a family that cultivates verbal dexterity.

The situation is basically this: Agnes and Tobias are a couple in the autumn of their lives. (The season of the year is autumn as well.) They live in a well-heeled New England suburb, where life revolves around the country club. An autumnal, elegiac mood pervades the play -- sometimes with a wistful potency, as in passages about the feeling of a house at night, when its occupants are asleep; sometimes in lines of strained lyricism, like "everything comes too late," when there is nothing left but "rust and bones and the wind."

In any case, Agnes and Tobias are not without their problems. One set of problems revolves around Claire, Agnes' entertaining but provocative drunk of a sister. She lives with the couple, fights continually with her disapproving sibling and flirts with her brother-in-law. The other problem -- the root cause of their "dysfunction" -- is the devastating, unexorcized grief for an infant son who died decades ago. This loss ended the sexual side of the marriage and accounts for the neurotic and abrasive behavior of the daughter, Julia.

Into this emotional welter, Albee introduces his "avant-garde" idea: a neighboring couple who become possessed by a sudden terror of existence and arrive at the family's doorstep with a firm determination to move in. They seem to have arrived not only from a nearby house, but from a different dimension of dramatic reality -- as though an Ionesco character had stepped into a play by William Inge.

It then becomes Albee's inescapable task as a playwright to show how the arrival of the neighbors forces some sort of resolution -- or at least significant transformation -- of the family's previous impasse. For me, this moment never arrives, and the play lacks a satisfying sense of convergence.

But A Delicate Balance, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, serves as a bold and challenging reminder that Rivertown Rep is not merely in the entertainment business. It is a serious artistic venue willing to take chances on an unconventional script.

And the production, under Joe Warfield's direction, offers many pleasures. The central trio of actors -- Janet Shea (Agnes), Eliott Keener (Tobias) and Abbey Lake (Claire) -- creates an upscale, alcohol-soaked slough of despond, which is simultaneously literate and amusing. Gina Porretto is credible as Julia, the eternal adolescent, while Pauline Prelutsky and Charles Bosworth preserve intact the mystery of the neighbors. The set by Robert Self is apt, and the costumes by Elizabeth Parent are effective.

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