It could happen at any moment. A chasm will yawn open, and everything above it -- families, friends, whole countries -- will disappear into the emptiness.
Everyone in Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" can see this coming, yet frozen by lethargy, complacency or fear, they sink into the upholstery in their elegantly appointed living room and, with anesthetizing cocktails in hand, try to ignore the looming horror.
Neglected for years, the 1966 play was revived and favorably reappraised in New York in 1996 and at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory in 2001. Now, a smart, darkly funny production has emerged at Pacific Resident Theatre just as world events stir up some of the same anxieties chronicled in this Vietnam War-era tale.
Tucked into fewer than 40 seats, viewers get a relentlessly close-up view of the goings-on in the gorgeous living room designed by William Ellis Smith. Sheathed with glowing wood and swagged with velvet, this bountiful place could be just another upper-middle-class home in the suburbs, or it could symbolize America, depending on how you interpret the action.
Impeccably dressed and observing all the social graces, Agnes (Channing Chase) and her husband, Tobias (Bruce French, alternating with Tony Pasqualini), do their best to keep up appearances, even though they're at wit's end over Agnes' tart-tongued, alcoholic sister, Claire (Jordan Baker), and their rootless daughter, Julia (Andi Carnick). Domestic tranquillity is further shattered by the arrival of best friends Harry (Greg Mullavey) and Edna (Sarah Brooke), who seek refuge after being enveloped by an unnamed terror in their home.
Director Elina de Santos keeps the tone fluid, so that the action morphs between absurdity and reality as these people paint a veneer of civility over their bad behavior.
Albee leaves room for viewers to fill in blanks, perhaps too much, because the action is sometimes frustratingly vague. Still, there's no denying the script's sharp wit and piercing insight, even if, as is widely believed, Albee received a Pulitzer Prize for this play mostly as consolation for the Pulitzer denied to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
-- Daryl H. Miller
"A Delicate Balance," Pacific Resident Theatre, 705 1/2 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends April 20. $20-$23.50. (310) 822-8392. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.