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Angela Brazil (seated) plays Julia and Anne Scurria her aunt Claire in Edward Albee's 'A Delicate Balance,' at Trinity Rep.
Angela Brazil (seated) plays Julia and Anne Scurria her aunt Claire in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," at Trinity Rep. (T. Charles Erickson)
THEATER REVIEW

Cracks in the facade of suburban life

Passage of time affects Albee's 'Delicate Balance'

PROVIDENCE -- "A Delicate Balance" is a delicate creature. The 1966 play, which won Edward Albee the Pulitzer he should have received for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," depends on our accepting its brittleness and artifice as facts of the characters' lives, not tricks of the dramatist's trade. Albee's suburbanites can -- and must -- teeter on the edge of the abyss, but we have to believe that they got there on their own, without a push from him.

Albee's characters often pose this kind of problem. Hyperdramatic, hyperarticulate, and hyperalert, they too easily resemble overacting actors, making grand gestures and delivering ornate speeches instead of walking and talking. The trick, at which Trinity Repertory Company's current production only sometimes succeeds, is to make the characters' essential falsity seem deeply true.

We begin with Agnes and Tobias, a middle-aged couple having cocktails in their upper-middle-class living room. Janice Duclos and Timothy Crowe quickly establish the wary, fleeting equilibrium of two longtime partners who know just how easy it is to fall off their shared and fraying tightrope. Duclos's Agnes soon tips the balance with a long, unsettling rumination on whether she will go mad someday -- or whether, in fact, she already has.

That question hangs, unspoken, over the rest of the play's three acts. Is this a normal, tidy, suburban family with the usual dents and dings, or is it a house full of lunatics? Or (what often feels like Albee's answer) do those two possibilities amount to the same thing?

Even if they could keep their poise on their own, Agnes and Tobias don't get the chance. First there's Agnes's live-in sister, Claire, a boozy sage who proudly declares herself "a drunk," not an alcoholic. Then there's the couple's 36-year-old daughter, Julia, headed home after the breakup of her fourth marriage. And then -- well, it's Albee, so it's time for some unexpected and unwanted guests.

These are Harry and Edna, earlier referred to as Agnes and Tobias's best friends. But they're not here this time for a round of golf or dinner at the club; they've landed on the doorstep, trembling as if dropped from space, because while they were sitting at home they were suddenly overcome by a nameless dread. They'd like to come in.

In fact, it soon transpires, they'd like to move in. And so the balance tilts again, this time more dangerously, as old assumptions about friendship, duty, loyalty, and love start to crack.

Director Kevin Moriarty has assembled a fine cast from the Trinity company, and each performance feels intelligently considered and expertly rendered. Anne Scurria , in particular, makes Claire's every word and gesture ring true; you get this woman's fury, wisdom, and pain, and you even get why she plays the accordion.

For all the hard work, though, the whole thing just feels slightly unreal, and not in a good way. Partly there's a difficulty built into the play. Albee sets "A Delicate Balance" in the present, and Trinity follows that instruction in its (surprisingly frumpy) costuming and decor. But "the present" has a nasty way of turning into the past.

Thus, for example, an Agnes and Tobias in 2007, not 1966, would no longer have a cook on staff; they wouldn't smoke, they wouldn't consider a 36-year-old to be at the end of her childbearing years, and they wouldn't hear "Alcoholics Anonymous" as if it were some wacky, newfangled fad.

Small points, perhaps. But if we are to believe the terror of these people when they realize they've been living on a thin shell of ice over a bottomless pit, we also need to believe, absolutely, that the ice once felt like solid ground. If it never seems real, it's not as scary when it cracks.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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