"Balance," which won Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes to date, opens as an elegant, brittle drawing-room comedy. Agnes (Rosemary Harris) and Tobias (George Grizzard) are fixing postprandial drinks and discussing her live-in sister Claire (Elaine Stritch), a drunk, and their 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Mary Beth Hurt), returning to this lavishly appointed suburban manse after the breakup of her fourth marriage.

“Balance,” which won Albee the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes to date, opens as an elegant, brittle drawing-room comedy. Agnes (Rosemary Harris) and Tobias (George Grizzard) are fixing postprandial drinks and discussing her live-in sister Claire (Elaine Stritch), a drunk, and their 36-year-old daughter, Julia (Mary Beth Hurt), returning to this lavishly appointed suburban manse after the breakup of her fourth marriage.

Agnes and Tobias — she as calculatingly meticulous as he is bemusedly off-the-cuff — have the easy intimacy of a couple who long ago stopped sharing a bed, who long ago stopped liking each other, let alone loving each other. Yet they persist in a kind of emotional demilitarized zone that has its satisfactions. They have a common history that includes a son who died in childhood, along with the unresolved grieving over never having replaced him.

Claire has the dramatist’s conceit of growing more lucid the drunker she gets — witness her name. When she challenges Tobias to name anything he has in common with his best friend, Tobias draws a blank. When that friend, Harry (John Carter), and his wife, Edna (Elizabeth Wilson), show up that night, driven out of their home by some unde-

fined “terror,” notions of friendship, love and loyalty are all put through the wringer. That Harry and Edna move into Julia’s bedroom just as she, too, arrives, sends the weekend into overdrive.

Articulate but cool and smugly self-congratulatory, Agnes is a tough role, and Harris is utterly regal playing her, revealing the not-so-secret losses and humiliations that have brought Agnes to this state. Swanlike and serenely radiant, Harris reveals myriad emotional shadings with an astounding economy of gesture and inflection, a marvel to observe.

Equally marvelous is Stritch, with a meatier role than her recent foray as Parthy in “Show Boat.” To watch her succumb to the vast amounts of alcohol Claire ingests, folding and refolding her legs, slipping — no, oozing — onto the floor, her face crumpling like a paper bag, is to witness a different but equally winning kind of thespian expertise. It’s a master class up there.

Harris and Stritch are solidly partnered. Grizzard, an old Albee hand, is gruffly befuddled by the seeming complexity of it all, whether recounting the tale of a cat who betrayed his affection and paid for it with his life, or, in the play’s nearly heartbreaking final scene, when he begs Harry and Edna not to leave. Carter’s Harry recalls Jack Lemmon as a man nearly frozen with fear, while Wilson has her own kind of regality as a suburban matron with an expanded sense of entitlement, to say the least.

Only Hurt’s shrill, over-the-top Julia seems at odds with Gutierrez’s staging , which is as sleek and polished as the oak paneling in John Lee Beatty’s glorious set, with its leather-bound books and damask-covered sofa (so big, in fact, you can’t help wondering why such a place wouldn’t have enough bedrooms to go around). Jane Greenwood’s costumes are perfect, and the first two acts are beautifully lit by Pat Collins. One wonders, however, about the choice of bathing the final, early morning scene, in a harsh, fluorescent glare.

Gutierrez draws a lot of laughs out of “A Delicate Balance,” not all of them appropriate. It is, after all, a play in which Tobias’ ideas of love and friendship are revealed as illusory, about “the souring side of love,” at least until “memory takes over and corrects fact,” as Claire says. The production lacks that defining moment in which a door is opened, however briefly, to reveal something of the terror Harry and Edna are running from, and which threatens the rest of this cozy world.

Yet somehow that seems a minor point in the face of such cherishable work. Coming off the smashing success of last year’s revival of “The Heiress,” Lincoln Center Theater has gorgeously restored another important play to the repertory.

A Delicate Balance

Plymouth Theater, New York; 1,079 seats; $ 45 top

Production

A Lincoln Center Theater presentation of a play in three acts by Edward Albee. Directed by Gerald Gutierrez.

Creative

Set, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Pat Collins; sound, Aural Fixation; stage manager, Michael Brunner; casting, Daniel Swee; production manager, Jeff Hamlin; artistic director, Andre Bishop; executive producer, Bernard Gersten. Opened April 21, 1996; reviewed April 18. Running time: 2 hours, 40 min.

Cast

Cast: Rosemary Harris (Agnes), George Grizzard (Tobias), Elaine Stritch (Claire), John Carter (Harry), Elizabeth Wilson (Edna), Mary Beth Hurt (Julia). Love and isolation -- mirror images of the human condition and favorite themes of '50s and '60s drama -- haunt Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" without ever spooking the audience in the manner of , say, Harold Pinter. As Gerald Gutierrez's exquisite revival for Lincoln Center Theater at the Plymouth Theater amply demonstrates, there are plenty of laughs to be found at the edge of the abyss.

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