Review: A Delicate Balance Returns Off-Broadway With an Asian-American Cast
Transport Group and National Asian American Theatre Company team up for a revival of the Edward Albee classic.
Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance has returned to the New York City theater landscape in a new off-Broadway production. But this revival has more of a hook than most. A co-production between Transport Group and the National Asian American Theatre Company, this is the first New York City production of Albee's 1966 comedy-drama to feature an entirely Asian-American cast.
From just outside the open doors of the Connelly Theater, which has been reconfigured into a traverse stage arrangement, audience members can immediately glimpse a bar from behind Peiyi Wong's witty living-room set. We can immediately tell we're amid an upper-middle-class milieu — or, at the very least, Albee's absurdist version of it, familiar to those who know the playwright best from his marital battle-of-the-sexes, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Delicate Balance, however, is a much odder concoction: an examination of family dysfunction, the meaning of friendship, and social mores in which character psychologies and interpersonal dynamics are conveyed through deliberately arch dialogue, implication, and figurative sideways glances.
The basics are at least easy enough to glean. At the center of this domestic tapestry are Agnes (Mia Katigbak) and Tobias (Manu Narayan), a married couple for whom passion has long since settled into dreary routine. Agnes's sister, Claire (Carmen M. Herlihy), who lives with them, is an alcoholic-in-denial and is the most prone to devil-may-care truth-telling, while Agnes and Tobias's daughter, Julia (Tina Chilip), returns home after leaving her fourth husband in what appears to be a pattern of failed marriages. All their lives are upended by the sudden appearance of married couple Harry (Paul Juhn) and Edna (Rita Wolf), both of whom ask Anges and Tobias if they can stay at their home in order to evade some mysterious something that has spooked them.
That "something" is never specified. Neither is the "plague" that Tobias refers to in his most impassioned outburst in Act 3. Such gaps are par for the course in A Delicate Balance, where so many of the specifics of plot details and backstories are made deliberately indistinct. It's as if Albee has taken ordinary human experiences and transformed them into something just beyond our grasp of comprehension. Considering it's in part about mental instability and impending death, that is perhaps as it should be.
Such an elusive and multifaceted text naturally lends itself to many different approaches, performative, directorial, or otherwise. Director Jack Cummings III's touch in this new off-Broadway production is subtle more often than not. Aside from Wong's set — propped up, so it seems, by drinking glasses and with books lining the sides of the raised platform — and Mariko Ohigashi's appropriately bourgeois costumes, lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy contributes the most noteworthy technical element at the end of Act 2 with a slow dimming-to-black that beautifully underscores one character's shell-shock.
Otherwise, Cummings's direction is hands-off enough that one might consider this basically a traditional staging of the play. But then there's the cast — or more specifically, the casting, with Asian-American performers in roles typically played by white actors. Initially, one might find Katigbak too soft-edged as Agnes — certainly, she doesn't exude the regal authority Katharine Hepburn did in Tony Richardson's 1973 film adaptation. But those who have dealt with Asian mothers for whom passive aggression is a weapon in their guilt-inducing arsenal may well find shivers of recognition in Katigbak's tamped-down performance. In such a context, Herlihy's affectedness as the loudmouth Claire makes sense as a reaction to her sister's quiet judgment. So does Chilip's more direct fury as Julia. By contrast, Narayan is a paragon of quietly anguished solidity as Tobias, as is Juhn opposite the more assertive Wolf.
Cummings could have encouraged a greater feeling of cohesion in this ensemble. Granted, Albee's stylized prose is difficult even for veteran performers to make sound natural, but there is an occasional sense that some of these performers haven't quite fully absorbed the idiom. In that respect, Narayan fares the best in this cast, seeming most at-home in Albee's world, especially in his fever-pitch climax in Act 3. Nevertheless, this uneven production of A Delicate Balance is solid enough to make a persuasive case for the universality of Albee's darkly poetic insights into upper-middle-class existential ennui.