THEATER | Albee’s “Delicate Balance” at the Guthrie: Life’s a bitch when the rich get ditched

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For a high school one-act play competition, I assumed the role of Tevya in a sequence of scenes from Fiddler On the Roof. We didn’t do very well in the competition, in part—the judges informed us—because I became too quickly, cartoonishly drunk after a few sips from the samovar. It would be years until I would have enough drinking experience to understand the proper progression of intoxication, and another several years after that before I would come to understand why some of our most harrowing, essential conversations are soaked in a boozy haze.

a delicate balance, a play written by edward albee and directed by gary gisselman. presented through march 1 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($24-$70) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

Life In a Boozy Haze wouldn’t be a bad title for an anthology of 20th century American drama, and that anthology would certainly include Edward Albee’s 1966 family feudfest A Delicate Balance, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is now being staged at the Guthrie Theater for the first time. The wealthy WASPs who populate Albee’s drama toss liquor down their throats at nearly every opportunity—and when they’re not drinking, they want to be. Most of the characters seem to regret the need to escape sobriety, and for this they’re needled by one character, Claire (Candy Buckley), who resists the label of “alcoholic” simply because she wants to be drunk. In this cruel world, who doesn’t?

Albee’s world is cruel, and cruelly funny; it’s in striking that Delicate Balance that director Gary Gisselman’s production most conspicuously fails. Following Joe Dowling’s Shadowlands, this is yet another intimate drama ill-served by the grand McGuire Proscenium Stage. At least designer John Arone’s gorgeous set accurately represents the palatial residence the characters inhabit—and, thank God, the set has no elements that drop down, rise up, or slide around of their own volition—but whereas in Shadowlands the dramatic subtleties were simply drowned out, the Delicate Balance cast members scale their performances to the grand surroundings. As Claire, Buckley isn’t just wryly goofy, she’s outright vaudevillian. When Claire’s niece Julia (Charity Jones) breaks down in angry tears, she’s compelled to run a marathon of frustration—first from one end of the stage to the other, then up and down the rafter-high staircase. Gisselman—director of the Guthrie’s crowd-pleasing Christmas Carol—plays the comedy so broadly that, at the performance I saw, when Julia’s beleaguered father Tobias (Raye Birk) had a climactic emotional breakdown, several audience members actually laughed. The thin line between comedy and tragedy is certainly among Albee’s themes, but I don’t think laughter is the reaction either Albee or Gisselman were shooting for at that particular moment.

Ironically, the staginess of this production makes Albee’s 43-year-old setting seem more distant than the 15th century setting of Shakespeare’s Henry V as it is currently being presented upstairs in the Guthrie’s Dowling Studio. Marital woes and intrusive houseguests are more familiar to most of us than are disputed dukedoms and besieged villages—but whereas I was riveted by King Henry’s royal dilemmas, at A Delicate Balance I found my attention drifting whenever the snappy one-liners and frantic antics gave way to subdued reflection. As the curtain dropped, I shrugged into my coat and followed the advice of Loretta Lynn’s Mrs. Leroy Brown: “Come on…let’s leave these boys to drown in their drink.”

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.