Performing a writer’s play in front of them must be beyond nerve-racking. And when the playwright is Edward Albee, eminent writer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and three-time Pulitzer winner? That can push it over the edge. So it was probably for the best that the actors performed opening night at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre without knowing that the 81-year-old scribe sat in the audience. The performers delivered a solid interpretation of the play, three acts ripe with reflections, regret and amusing recollections of years gone by.
Although the play premiered in 1966, the plot and themes remain current: Tobias and Agnes, a couple cut with unsettled anxiety, permanently house the wife’s alcoholic sister Claire. Soon they take in their close friends Harry and Edna, a couple haunted by their unhappy marriage. Just to add to the kooky mix, Tobias and Agnes’ daughter Julia comes home in the wake of ruining her fourth marriage.
The plot develops subtly, unfolding in the couple’s living room, a charming set complete with plenty of cocktails, cigars and cigarettes. The audience’s seats intimately wrapped around the sofa, chairs and coffee table — which was stacked with copies of The New Yorker — making it seem as though people are eavesdropping on the ever-augmenting exploration of anguish.
Yet while the play deals with life’s greater anxieties such as death, divorce and delirium, it’s done so in a comedic manner. The booze-loving Claire elicits more laughs than the endless nightcaps she consumes, Agnes attempts to control the chaos in a riotously rigid manner and Julia is just plain crazy.
One of the night’s highlights was Claire’s incessant playing of minor chords on an accordion to mock the building tension in the living room. Her physicality and facial expressions alone had the audience in stitches, despite the unfolding chaos.
Perhaps the play’s true appeal lies in the fact that Albee presents life’s hard knocks in a way that makes them seem manageable. Just have a few laughs and know that the morning will in fact come again. And when the going gets tough, the tough get drinking.