Just about every critic in town has good things to say about A Delicate Balance at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. And the Lyric's Production of Three Tall Women is starting to get the buzz as well.
In the past year or so I have been reading and looking at critical reactions to Pulitzer prize winners.
A Delicate Balance was really revived into our theatrical conciousness by its 1996 Broadway revival, not its initial run. For, although it obviously had supporters during its very short premiere, the New York Times's Walter Kerr was not at all impressed and some of the critical voices were downright hostile:
Here is Robert Brustein in the New Rebublic of 1966:
Edward Albee's recent work poses a number of problems for the reviewer, one of them being that it is virtually impossible to discuss it without falling into repetition. Looking over the anthology of pieces I have written about his annual procession of plays, I discover that I am continually returning to two related points: that his plays have no internal validity and that they are all heavily dependent upon the style of other dramatists. At the risk of boring the reader, I am forced to repeat these judgments about A Delicate Balance.
And this from Walter Kerr's New York Times Review:
But in the end, how do your get hold of hollowness, how do you flesh out what is drained of flash and create suspense out of what is isn't there? Harold Pinter has done it. ... But Mr. Pinter does everything by suggestion, by playing on our own easily disturbed sensibilities. He never uses the word "fright" he simply frightens us. Mr. Albee on the other hand, plays his hand all too readily, revealing that there is so little there.
And in an effort to find a stylized verbal technique that will convey the literally unspeakable, Mr. Albee seemed to go directly back to the T.S. Eliot of, say, Family Reunion and to use, much too abstractly and often too sonorously, the reiterations and the repeated rythyms of almost-but-not quite poetry. The images seem to have hollows in them, like well formed chocalate Easter bunnies that crack wide open at the very first bite. Words like "succor, comfort, warmth" recur as though they had no concrete referants, no tangible thread connecting them with days or nights, bodies or deeds...The play itself becomes a condition, standing still, though immaculately still.
Reading Kerr's review, one finds that he just really doesn't know quite what to make of it. It think the recognition of Family Reunion is interesting, and the comparisons to Pinter are contemporary and legitimate. But really, Kerr, the author of How Not to Write a Play, seems flummoxed. Almost as if he perceives he is watching something great, but is cautious against being tricked.
Kerr definitely erred on the side of caution, whereas Brustein tossed the whole thing overboard.
What Kerr sensed, and Brustein did not, is what most critics and Thomas Garvey points to in his review of the Merrimack Rep production:
But while in Woolf, Albee flays his characters down to their last
secret (and then sucks out its marrow), in Balance, he leaves almost everything under wraps, lifting the veil of civilization only occasionally to reveal the horrors moving beneath.
This makes Balance both more humane than Woolf and also harder to pin down; it floats somewhere between tragedy and farce, and its dynamics generate a spooky unease (or perhaps dis-ease, as Agnes insists her friends are carrying "the plague") without ever settling on a specific frame of reference or theme. Is it a critique of a social class, who suddenly face the terrible flip-side of their pampered aimlessness? Is it a satire of a family so dysfunctional that everything but the liquor cabinet has been compromised or lost? Or is it a tragedy of people whose emotional bargains have rendered them incapable of real connection?