Off Broadway Reviews
That "today's newspaper" analogy is no writer's flourish here, not when one of the lead characters casually summarizes the one he is reading: "Small wars, large anxieties, our dear Republicans as dull as ever." (Generally a throwaway line, this one drew laughs and applause at the performance I attended, and I even felt obliged to check the script to make sure it wasn't an add-in. It isn't.)
The speaker is Tobias (Manu Narayan), whose greatest ambition would seem to be keeping things at a quiet distance. You can imagine him in slippers and robe, smoking a pipe, and hiding out in his den away from the uproar of the household he shares with his wife Agnes (Mia Katigbak), who spends a great deal of the opening scene prattling on in some detail about her belief that she might one day lose her mind. Tobias mostly ignores her while fixing drinks at the frequently visited bar that sits at one end of the traverse stage. Between them, a quietly dignified balance is maintained, while whatever churns beneath stays tucked away, at least for the time being.
The trigger that likely would push Agnes over the edge is the third member of the household, her sister Claire ("I am not a alcoholic," she declares, emphasizing the word "a" and proving at every turn that she is one). Claire is the great and unpredictable disturber of the peace and a bane to Agnes; it is easy to imagine that they have been at each other's throats since childhood. The role is catnip to any actress who plays her, and here Carmen M. Herlihy has a blast with it, whether she is rolling around on the floor, making snippy remarks and sly innuendos, guzzling adult beverages, or even playing the accordion and threatening to yodel.
Everyone in the play seems to think of Agnes as the "fulcrum" of the family, the one who keeps things mostly in balance. But in this production, thoughtfully directed by Jack Cummings III, "balance" no longer is the operant term. Rather, it is tension on which this particular family group thrives. It is what invigorates them and keeps them from falling into a state of entropy and dissolution.
And there is plenty of tension to go around. To begin with, Tobias and Agnes's 36-year-old needy mess of a daughter Julia (Tina Chilip, a firebrand) is coming home yet again, to hide out in the wake of her pending divorce from Douglas, husband #4. Julia is the embodiment of Robert Frost's famous aphorism: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Stretch the definition of "home" to include best friends, and add the final ingredients to the mix. That would be Harry (Paul Juhn) and Edna (Rita Wolf), who show up just ahead of Julia and announce they are moving in, having been driven from their own home by some unnamed fear. Agnes will later compare their overwhelming angst with a "disease" and a "plague" that she sees as a contagious threat to all of them. With their arrival, you have the set-up for the perfect storm that carries through the rest of the play, an au courant trope that the audience will surely be able to relate to: disease, plague, and generalized anxiety.
There is much to praise about this production of A Delicate Balance. Peiyi Wong's set design is nicely suggestive of Tobias and Agnes's upscale suburban home but also is smartly configured across the traverse stage in a way that allows for both distancing and closeness of the performers, as reflected in their interactions. There are Mariko Ohigashi's costumes that reflect the formality with which the characters generally have always faced the world. And there is the wonderful ensemble of actors, a cast of Asian American actors who demonstrate, in case there is any doubt, that Albee's characters can be representative of anyone in the situations he lays out.
A Delicate Balance