Much of what was on Albee's mind in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? goes further in A Delicate Balance: The fragility of human alliances, unhealable life-inflicted wounds (such as the premature deaths of children), and feeling still lost and alone amid modern creature comforts. It seems that humanity was just as messed up in 1966 as it is now. Maybe the world isn't getting worse.
The play's dramaturgical style has less bombast than Virginia Woolf: Its frenemies simmer for awhile (not easy to bring off) before simply saying things like "I wish you'd die." Also, Albee shows his ties to Samuel Beckett by adding and subtracting characters without realistic motivations: Neighbors arrive for an extended visit because staying home is scary.
The elusive tone between the real and surreal wasn't always achieved here. Pacing was off at Saturday's performance; the cast perhaps had post-opening blahs, upsetting the balance of power within the play.
The household matriarch, Agnes, is the one character who knows what she's doing there, yet even she starts the play musing about losing her mind. Though Agnes can often be cold, Chalfant conveys abrasive benevolence: You know why she is in charge of the house, but there's an underlying warmth that makes her later emotionally naked moments believable, like her Hannah Pitt in Angels in America but with an elevated approach to the language.
While Paul Scofield played husband Tobias as a sleepwalker in the 1973 film, Glover is an aggressive observer, watching scenarios unfolding from the sidelines until his Act III meltdown, played as the one real moment Tobias has had since the death of his daughter. Problematically, Penny Fuller played Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire as a barfly, limiting Fuller's ability to stake out her theatrical territory.
A Delicate Balance
Through Feb. 17 at the McCarter Theatre Center. Tickets: $20-$77. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org
Contact David Patrick Stearns at firstname.lastname@example.org.