- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

Arena Stage may be in new locations during its massive renovation, but by the looks of the polished, assured “A Delicate Balance” by Edward Albee, under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, you would swear it was the old Arena — a place known for expertly acted and captivating stagings of classic theater.

Arena goes back to its roots for this gleaming production, notable not only for capturing the classy uppercuts of Mr. Albee’s upper-crust dialogue, but also for the look of the show. How often do you ooh and aah a play before the actors have uttered one line? The genteel sumptuousness of Todd Rosenthal’s living-room set — warm vanilla walls, rows of shelves of leather-bound books, plump upholstery and expensive art — makes you want to renew your subscription to Architectural Digest.

The trappings of East Coast gentry are Mr. Albee’s milieu, and few playwrights capture the neuroses and velvet-shrouded prickliness of this world with such precise wit and insight. In “A Delicate Balance,” which premiered on Broadway in 1966, Mr. Albee examines the domestic lies that bind a suburban WASP family undergoing a startling invasion.

Tobias (the superb Terry Beaver) and Agnes (Kathleen Chalfant) are a retired couple warming themselves in the ashes of their long-standing marriage. Miss Chalfant’s towering Agnes is at once acerbic and fragile, making devastating incisive observations about men and aging, yet worrying she will go mad and become an embarrassment to her husband.

Tobias is one of those old-fashioned, upstanding men of a prior generation. He tolerates his highborn priss of a wife and has a teasing relationship with her younger sister, Claire (Ellen McLaughlin), an enchanting, truth-telling terror of a drunk who is as gleefully undone as her sibling is controlled. Claire even insists she isn’t an alcoholic, which makes her “willful” in Agnes’ book.

However, Tobias cannot act as if all’s right with the world when his disruptive, unfinished business of a daughter, Julia (Carla Harting, a force of nature) once again comes home to stay — at 36 and on her fourth failed marriage. The lovely home is further invaded when Tobias and Agnes’ best friends, Harry (James Slaughter) and Edna (Helen Hedman) arrive unexpectedly, frightened by some unknown terror and seeking shelter. Permanent shelter.

The staging of Harry and Edna’s visit is superbly staged to point up the tasteful bizarreness of Mr. Albee’s artistocratic world. As family members abundantly help themselves to top-shelf liquor after dinner, Harry and Edna suddenly troop in — in coats and hats and gloves — and tell their story with deadpan elan, as if people are frightened out of their homes every day for no good reason.

Tobias and Agnes welcome their friends (excellently played by Mr. Slaughter and Miss Hedman) but their strange presence disrupts the gossamer peace of the household. With Agnes coolly observing from the sidelines, it is Tobias who must figure out just what is happening in his home and how he can get back what’s left of his life.

With exquisite command, “A Delicate Balance” tells us that the bonds of love and friendship are not limitless, that there is an end to compassion and familial duty. Uncertainty and insecurity dwell even in the well-plumbed corners of the houses of the rich. All the cocktails and Aubusson rugs in the world cannot mask the low thrum of that fear that we are, in the end, awfully alone.

★★★½

WHAT: “A Delicate Balance” by Edward Albee

WHERE: Arena Stage at Crystal City, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday except 6 p.m. March 1; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, except no 2 p.m. show March 1 or 15; noon matinees Feb. 25, March 3 and March 11; through March 15

TICKETS: $25 to $66

PHONE: 202/488-3300

WEB SITE: www.arenastage.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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