Director Anthony Page, fresh from winning this year’s Tony Award for “A Doll’s House,” has confronted such terrors before, including a 1994 West End staging of “Three Tall Women” (also starring Smith) that replaced the New York production’s feeling of release with something more lastingly grim. Behind the air of high comedy lurks an unnamable void that Albee’s sextet comes to call “the plague.” What happens, Albee asks, when neighborliness reveals itself as nonsense? Or when you turn to others, or yourself, for comfort only to find that there’s no one home?
For all its T.S. Eliot-like musings, there’s something of Virginia Woolf’s novelistic flirtation with madness to a family shoring itself up against an abyss into which (the ending suggests) it will surely fall. (Carl Toms’ imposing neoclassical set doesn’t hint metaphorically at black wastelands beyond, as the design did in New York.) “We dislike happiness,” decides Agnes, which is just as well, since her world admits precious little of it. While sister Claire tipples, pausing to try on topless bathing suits and play the accordion, husband Tobias (John Standing) retreats into cocktail-hour ritual, banishing thoughts of the son whom he and Agnes long ago buried.
Daughter Julia (Sian Thomas), by contrast, is noisily alive, a 36-year-old hysteric and four-time divorcee none too thrilled to find her room given over to neighbors Edna (Annette Crosbie) and Harry (James Laurenson) in fearful flight from fear itself.
Two separate productions within such a short time confirm one’s sense that Julia is in many ways the play’s most difficult role: an unyielding figure of rancor who finishes pretty much where she began. But even with that in mind, Thomas’ wildly strident approach merely leaves one applauding Edna’s eventual slap on her face. (Unlike the part’s recent Broadway occupant, Mary Beth Hurt, Thomas makes no theatrical virtue of narcissism.)
The production does scarcely better by Tobias, whom Standing makes a patsy withholding any sense of intelligence and power until a third-act (and here very stagy) outburst.
Rightly or otherwise (and Laurenson’s very fine Harry notwithstanding), all eyes will be on the leading ladies, contemporaries who, amazingly, have never appeared together until now. To start with, Atkins and Smith really look like sisters, and when Atkins is at her most querulous, they can even sound alike. But Agnes is far and away the more challenging role, and one wonders whether Smith might have been more tested in that part rather than the gin-soaked, aspish Claire. This actress continues to get laughs where no one else ever would (merely the phrase “pre-squeezed orange juice” is a source of hilarity), but, as her incomparable “Talking Heads” onstage last year proved, she can be as revealing when quiet: admitting, sad-eyed, that “time happens” or sending the audience out for the first intermission on a note of doomy suspense.
Atkins, in turn, at first seems to cut too hard a figure, especially when compared with the serenity with which Rosemary Harris brilliantly shaded the role. A more overtly haunted presence, Atkins gets better as the production goes on, eventually locating the full weight of feeling behind Agnes’ finicky, propriety-obsessed facade. Just as the play is set to endure, so is Atkins’ final gesture, staring hopefully out the window at the blinding sun only to rest her gaze on the same darkness wherein “A Delicate Balance” resides.