What does it take to make us reach the tipping point, when pretense is pushed aside and we’re forced to confront the terror of being alive? That’s the theme of master playwright Edward Albee in his dark yet surprisingly humorous take on the horror that dwells in the suburbs.
Agnes (Susan Sullivan) and Tobias (David Selby) are upper-class suburbanites whose peaceful (if banal) existence is shattered when they take in her drunken sister, Claire (O-Lan Jones). Further disruption occurs when Agnes announces that their daughter, Julia (Deborah Puette) is coming back to the nest after the failure of her fourth marriage.
Before Julia arrives, however, the couple’s best friends, Harry (Mark Costello) and Edna (Lily Knight) show up on the doorstep with their own plans to stay. It happens that they were spending a quiet evening when they were suddenly and simultaneously seized by an unnamed terror that drove them from the house. Having no one else to turn to, they came to Agnes and Tobias. Perplexed but too well-mannered to deny friends, Agnes allows them to stay in their daughter’s room. Julia is furious at the invasion of her personal space, and the many delicate balances begin to shatter.
A Delicate Balance bears some similarities to Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. There’s an unseen son (but this one is real — and dead), verbal jousting and lots of booze — but Balance is much more surreal. The characters don’t behave as you’d expect them to and they tend to speak in florid terms. Still, the jet-black humor comes roaring through.
Good performances are key in a complicated piece like this, and the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s cast is first-rate. Sullivan hits all the right notes as prickly Agnes, with Selby providing a superb counterpoint as the complacent Tobias. Jones makes the most of Claire, the most humorous character, and even gets to play the accordion. Puette, Costello and Knight all provide able support. The direction by Robin Larsen is excellent, punctuating the comedy, which is essential for such a dark work.
Tom Buderwitz’s clean set design and costumes by Dianne K. Graebner embrace the play’s 1960s milieu, which is appropriate. Their work is nicely complemented by Leigh Allen’s subtle lighting and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound.
A Delicate Balance plays Thursday through Sunday with select Wednesday performances through Jun 15 at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations can be made online or by calling (310) 477-2055, ext. 2.