Is “A Delicate Balance” a deliciously astringent attack on safety and self-satisfaction? An exposure of the responsibilities of living? A lethal, laugh-out-loud comedy? The clue is in the title. The test for a director of Edward Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer winner is the balancing act of all these elements. James Macdonald’s gleamingly well-acted, immaculately calibrated production passes it with flying colors.

Albee reveres Chekhov, and not just because the latter made tragedy and comedy simultaneous and indivisible. The two of them habitually address the terrors of change being visited upon a stifling, static domestic situation.

Elderly, long-married couple Agnes (Penelope Wilton) and Tobias (Tim Pigott-Smith), as sedately well-oiled as they are well-heeled, bask self-reflectively in the luxury of idleness. The only fly in the ointment is one of Albee’s beloved watchers, in this case Agnes’ devil-may-care, hard-drinking sister Claire (Imelda Staunton). But trouble is brewing this weekend, kicked off by the unscheduled arrival of their oldest friends.

For reasons they cannot explain, Harry (calm Ian McElhinney) and Edna (tightly reproving Diana Hardcastle) have been overtaken by fear. They prevail upon Agnes and Tobias to save them by allowing them to stay. When unstable daughter Julia (shimmering Lucy Cohu) returns home after her third failed marriage to find them in her room, the territorial battle for space rapidly escalates into something far more profound.

Macdonald roots everything via the comfort of Laura Hopkins’ plausibly plush, curved mahogany set that simply reeks of tradition and old money. Alcohol waits patiently in decanters and there’s nothing so vulgar as a paperback here — this family doesn’t read books, it possesses leather-bound volumes. And on a Chesterfield sofa and button-backed chairs sits a flawless cast.

The danger with the play is to underestimate its texture by overplaying its dynamic range. Wife and matriarch Agnes is coolly controlling, an essay in asperity, but cast an actress noted for nastiness and the role is flattened out. But Penelope Wilton is not only celebrated for the breadth of her compassion, she also began her acting career as a comedienne. The former allows her to find flashes of warmth beneath Agnes’ ruthlessly maintained patrician composure; the latter gives her whiplash timing that destroys opposition. Her sudden release of fury at Claire is shocking because it is so unsignaled.

Staunton has a field day with Claire’s alcoholic self-loathing, relishing her beady truth-telling and attacking the comedy jugular with her magnificently absurd entrance with an accordion.

It’s the role that Elaine Stritch made her own in Broadway’s only revival back in 1996. But truthful (and hilarious) though her performance was, it dominated everything at the expense of the play. The same thing happened when Maggie Smith played her in the 1997 London production that never found the play’s rhythm. But Macdonald’s ear for structure and phrasing makes him as much an expert conductor as a director.

Keeping his sextet of performers poised on the knife-edge between evoking both the laughter and pain of acute recognition, Macdonald’s helming allows Albee’s concerns — What does a life add up to? How selfless can one be? — to surface to maximum effect. So much so, that in the unsparing fire of Guy Hoare’s early morning lighting, Harry’s gentle, resigned explanation to shattered Tobias of the limits of friendship proves heartbreaking. This revival reveals, once and for all, that although “The Goat” has a more dramatic metaphor and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has more blood ‘n’ guts theatricality, “A Delicate Balance” is Albee’s mature masterpiece.

A Delicate Balance

Almeida Theater; 319 seats, £32, $52 top

  • Production: An Almeida Theater presentation of a play in three acts by Edward Albee. Directed by James Macdonald.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Laura Hopkins; lighting Guy Hoare; sound, Ian Dickinson; music, Gwilym Simcock; production stage manager, Kristi Warwick. Opened, reviewed May 12, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Agnes - Penelope Wilton<br/> Tobias - Tim Pigott-Smith<br/> Claire - Imelda Staunton<br/> Julia - Lucy Cohu<br/> Edna - Diana Hardcastle<br/> Harry - Ian McElhinney<br/>