In collaboration with National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), Transport Group’s Off-Off-Broadway presentation of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance, now playing a limited engagement at the Connelly Theater through November 19, embraces its mission of fostering new initiatives for greater representation in the theater. Not only is it the first NYC production of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama to be seen off Broadway, but it’s also the first to feature a full cast of Asian American actors, and the first New York production of an Albee play to be performed by a non-white cast, in an intensely compelling vision of the dysfunction and despair inherent in the playwright’s semi-autobiographical story, with unstable characters based on members of his own adoptive family.
Directed by Transport Group Artistic Director Jack Cummings III, the well-timed three-act play, with two intermissions, moves along briskly, in its skillful balance of psychological malaise, absurdist humor, and explosive confrontations, as the home of the affluent empty-nester couple Agnes and Tobias becomes a not-so-safe haven and a battleground for four uninvited guest residents: her alcoholic sister Claire; their fearful best friends Harry and Edna; and their four-times-divorced daughter Julia – all upsetting the already delicate balance of their strained and sexless marriage, and Agnes’s repeated concern about losing her mind.
The engaging cast of six captures the articulate musings and showdowns of the educated upper-crust figures, prone to hurling eloquent insults at one another and to downing excessive cocktails and cordials that unleash their less than cordial behavior and raise questions about what they really want and what they’re going to do. Taking the lead is Mia Katigbak as the stern, proper, and cutting Agnes, who maintains whatever emotional control and balance she can as the fulcrum of the family, with an apparent lack of sympathy for the others who embarrass her, and an inclination of putting her husband in the position of having to make the tough decisions she demands. Manu Narayan as Tobias is more tolerant, complaisant, and empathetic, incessantly drinking and serving drinks to everyone, presumably to create a social atmosphere as the host, but more likely as an attempt to obliterate their problems and his. He is generally soft-spoken, until his climactic “aria” (as described by Albee) with Harry, when his suppressed emotions finally burst.
Carmen M. Herlihy brings the laughs as the “willful drinker” Claire, who rolls around on the floor, taunts her sister Agnes with her alcoholic and verbal lack of control, backhanded apology, and gleeful refusal to confirm her knowledge of an affair Tobias had, though she teased at it earlier. In her portrayal of the 30-something Julia, Tina Chilip is comically outspoken, immature, and demanding, as she goes to extremes to try to get what she wants, cries so hard that her eye-makeup runs down her face, and stops the show with her spot-on delivery, facial expression, and body language in her hilarious incredulous response, “WHAT???” Rounding out the fine cast are Paul Juhn as the reserved Harry, who ultimately asks Tobias if he and his wife are welcome there, and the masterful Rita Wolf as the smiling, cool, and critical Edna, who, like her husband, is evasive about what frightened them from their own house but doesn’t hesitate to make sharply incisive comments about Julia, whose bedroom they’ve appropriated, that cut like a knife.
Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes are in keeping with the chic style of the 1960s and the personalities and ages of the upscale characters. Lighting by R. Lee Kennedy transitions from bright daytime to dark night to a gloomy sunrise, when Agnes and Tobias must begin the day again. The scenic design by Peiyi Wong features a runway stage with sofas facing opposite each other across the room, allowing the director to maintain a delicate balance in his blocking of the actors’ movements; a large-scale liquor cabinet at one end, filled with an array of crystal decanters and glasses, to keep the drinks flowing; and a grand but stark grey staircase at the far end, on which the characters make slow stylized entries and exits that underscore Albee’s absurdist content. A row of leather-bound classics support and encircle the stage above a row of empty glasses on the floor, referencing the books and booze that define the highly educated heavy drinking characters. It all contributes to a well-conceived and absorbing production.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions.
A Delicate Balance plays through Sunday, November 19, 2022, at the Transport Group, performing at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $35-75, plus fees), go online. Masks are mandatory in the theater when not actively eating or drinking.