Edward Albee’s Balancing Act

Hepburn

DATELINE: Stars on Stage in American Film Theatre

Certain plays will never make it to film because the demographics are not right. It takes an act of superstars to pull it off.

Cable networks do yeoman work in bringing rare works to the screen, but in 1973 before anyone thought of cable, movies were still the purview of audiences that loved their grand stars.

One of the era’s lost masterpieces included the prestigious absurdist drama A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee. With its ponderous and literary dialogue, it might win a Pulitzer Prize, but it would lose the wider audience of film fans unless you made it a star-studded spectacle.

And so, Katharine Hepburn and Paul Scofield signed on as the well-to-do, educated couple Agnes and Tobias. Their multi-divorcee daughter could be played by Lee Remick. Their best friends, equally educated and rich, were Joseph Cotten and Betsy Blair. Throw in Kate Reid as the alcoholic sister of Hepburn, and you had an intriguing cast. And a plot that never pays off.

Alas, only Reid seemed to know how to handle the surreal dialogue with a deft touch. The others were all doing soap opera on afternoon network TV.

Yet, you must not miss it, even if you have to hang on to your No-Doze. This play was written in an era when literate playgoers could follow densely packed metaphors.

It seems long-time friends Harry and Edna (Cotten & Blair) show up suddenly on the doorstep of Hepburn and Scofield in a state of panic, terror, and fear. Of what we might ask? Old age? Loneliness? Or some other devil? Perhaps it does not matter as the absurdist interplay involves consideration of the depth of friendship.

To have your oldest, old friends decide to move into your home may be a bit much even for those who can afford it.

Though there are red herrings to indicate violence is around the corner and under the surface (murdering cats, mass killing of one’s family, and a loose gun in the hands of a hysterical woman), there really is no payoff that way.

Today, we’d be expecting a bloodbath. But, this is 1973 when theatre was not quite dead and not quite physical. That’s the delicate balance apparently.

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