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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Trinity Repertory Company, Rhode Island

By Sandy MacDonald

There's a general consensus among the theatre community that the Pulitzer which Edward Albee earned in 1967 for A Delicate Balance amounted to payback for the prize that was withheld in 1962 for the far more powerful - but apparently, to the panel's collective taste, too prurient -- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The setup is remarkable similar: A well-to-do suburban couple, Agnes and Tobias (she's assertive, he's passive-aggressive) are paid a social call by another couple of their class, Harry and Edna, which goes oddly - although here, not so floridly - askew. The hosts refer repeatedly to a child - only this one is real (Julia, Agnes and Tobias's thrice-divorced daughter, turns up, vociferously, in Act II). One more character rounds out the cast, an equivalent of sorts to Virginia Woolf's fictional Western Union messenger. Claire, a self-described "drunk" (this is how she distinguishes an alcoholic-by-choice), is the designated truth-teller, an element no dysfunctional family could or should do without.

It seems a role custom-tailored for company member Anne Scurria, who delivered an excoriating Martha seven years ago. Claire needles and annoys, bringing out the worst in her control-freak sister Agnes, who - being one of those oxygen-depleting pontificators - is plenty annoying herself.

The latter role is unfortunately not a good fit for Trinity veteran Janice Ducios, whose physical bearing and facial expressions betray a streak of vulnerability. Agnes needs to be a martinetish monster of How It's Done: she's the WASP-nightmare mater familias, running the show with a kid-gloved iron fist. She also needs to ooze just enough charm to keep the troops from rebelling. (Christine Baranski, for instance, would make a superb Agnes: it's a mere quarter-turn from her breezy socialite in Paul Rudd's Regrets Only.) Duclos's ponderousness throws off the balance; Tobias (Timothy Crowe) at first appears overly complacent, given that the self-important blatherer he chose for a life mate would soon get anyone's goat.

Trust the interlopers to shake things up, though. Harry and Edna, country-club acquaintances (a level of intimacy that passes for "best friends" in this milieu), have fled their own house, stricken by an inchoate malaise. They ask to spend the night; having secured that favor, they propose to move in, indefinitely - it's a genteel home invasion. This plan does not sit at all well with Julia, who has retreated from the shambles of her fourth marriage only to find her sanctuary usurped.

It's Tobias's internal journey that claims center stage from this phase onward. Peculiar as Harry and Edna's demands may appear (and William Damkoehler is the ultimate well-met wingtip cipher, Cynthia Strickland tone-perfect as his custom-bound, cashmere-clad helpmate), they somehow make Tobias feel needed, and alive. He's dying to rise to the occasion, since such challenges come along so rarely in the stratum he and his family inhabit. Even his own daughter's latest crisis (Angela Brazil is wonderfully bratty once she decides to defend her turf) elicits no such primal instinct.

The play depicts a family - and in fact, a whole social class - way out of whack, in a manner that seems as germane to the patricians of the 21st century as to the conservative holdouts of the mid-1960s. Set designer Michael McCarty has provided an evocative baseline with a not-too-showy, not-too-shabby antiques-accoutered living room, and director Kevin Moriarty uncovers every scintilla of absurdist humor in Albee's also-ran - but by no means second-rate - script.


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