In Mixed Company


2000. Quills.

In Mixed Company 2000 Quills 001

1999. A Delicate Balance. Playwright: Edward Albee. Director: Scott Balthazor. Cast: Joan Steen Silberschlag, Steven Mastroieni, Paul Benchwick, Wanda McHatton, Barbara McGrath, Helen Hayes.

Review, Kyle Lawson, Arizona Republic, Jan. 13, 1999.

Like so many Titanics, the principal characters of A Delicate Balance navigate a treacherous course through the icy shoals of human relationships. Their progress in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy is stately, even graceful, but the glittering exterior of their lives overlies a maelstrom of soured passions and thwarted dreams. The fate of that great ship is well known; the future awaiting this crew is no less cataclysmic.

Agnes and Tobias are properly brought-up people, whose greatest fear is that they might inadvertently do something that would be an embarrassment to themselves or their friends. They are comfortably fixed, with a beautiful home in the Hamptons and a daughter they love but don’t understand.

Julia, the daughter, shares the mixed emotions. Worse, her relationship with her parents has complicated her life. Unable to distinguish between love and its unreliable clone, infatuation, she is in the process of shedding her fourth husband. As she has done each time before, she has come home to pull herself together and, maybe this time, make her parents understand.

Edna and Harry are the couple’s best friends, perhaps their only friends. They are Julia’s godparents, and, at the moment, they are frightened. Of what, Albee never says. Something terrible, though. So horrible, they have fled their home and moved into Julia’s old room, upsetting the family’s sleeping arrangements. Julia is furious, but Agnes and Tobias can’t bring themselves to ask the intruders to leave. They are their best friends. They love them. Don’t they?

Finally, there is Claire, Agnes’ sister. An alcoholic who won’t admit it and gifted (burdened?) with a brutally self-deprecating wit, she is the Cassandra of the piece, accurately charting the family’s passage among the floes, desperately wanting to change the route. She is as helpless as the rest, unable to do anything but go down with the ship, cracking jokes as she disappears beneath the waves.

Albee’s play is a masterpiece of dysfunctional relationships, whose impact is not in what is voiced but in what is left unspoken. Such subtext is difficult to stage, even harder to absorb, and credit is due to In Mixed Company for its highly watchable, if flawed, revival at PlayWright’s Theatre.

In the hands of director Scott Balthazor and a cast of veteran actors, Balance emerges as a savagely humorous examination of the many ways in which people can live together in intimate configurations yet never possess a clue as to who their partners really are or what those partners’ needs may be. As for expressing their true feelings toward each other – well, they simply can’t, so they don’t. They are doomed voyagers but, in Albee’s hands, as funny as they are fascinating.

The surprise of this revival is the firm hand Balthazor takes with the material. He juggles the emotional pyrotechnics and the humor with expert skill, without ever dropping the ball on the characters’ lonely alienation or their desperate need to connect. But he is young. He doesn’t quite have the feel for Albee’s complicated rhythms; the playwright stands second to none in his use of the telling pause, the quickened breath, the megaram-fast retort. Moving to that rhythm takes experience. Balthazor has the talent. Time will give him the rest.

The actors are good, too, especially Barbara McGrath as Claire, although there is no need to apologize for Joan Steen Silberschlag’s Agnes, Steven Mastroieni’s Tobias, Paul Benchwick’s Harry or Wanda McHatton’s Edna.

One must be more than good, though, to find a path through the dense maze of Albee’s language. There are times when the actors’ eyes widen in what looks suspiciously like panic as they contemplate the verbiage they have just given voice to and the words they have left to say. This is poetry as well as theater, and much like actors unused to Shakespeare, there are moments when the cast members declaim their parts rather than live them.

Helen Hayes, as Julia, gets it right. The actress is the production’s second great surprise. She has spent much of her career in the shadow of her husband, actor-playwright-director Ben Tyler, and she has endured way too many jokes over her name. That should change with this performance. Hayes deftly captures her character’s conflicted emotions, making us understand why Julia keeps coming home, why men keep wanting to marry her, why her life is such a waste.

Everyone’s life in A Delicate Balance is a waste. These are intelligent,cultured, witty individuals, with every good thing available for the asking. Their tragedy is that they know how to grab but not how to take. Each time they reach out, they can’t resist touching themselves first. They are selfish, although the word isn’t in their vocabularies.

It is a harsh lesson for audiences raised on the ethics of the “me” generation. Albee sends them out of the theater laughing. Only later do they get the joke.

An excerpt from Robrt Pela’s New Times review:

“There isn’t a really interesting performance until Wanda McHatton arrives onstage at the half-hour mark, or a really strong one until Helen Hayes erupts into a shrieking tantrum late in the evening. Mastroieni gets going in the second act, when he’s called on to trade in Tobias’ befuddled decorum for a climactic aria of rage. His scenes with Hayes (whose wonderfully varied performance makes me wonder why she doesn’t work more) bristle with the tension that his exchanges with Steen Silberschlag lack.”

 1995. Exit the King.  Playwright: Eugene Ionesco. Director: David Barker. Cast: Steven Mastroieni, Barbara McGrath, Russ Wendt, Allen Lea, Cindy Wynn, Joy Lynn Pak.

In Mixed Company received many good reviews but they were seldom as wonderful as the one penned by Marshall W. Mason in the New Times for the 1995 production of Exit the King . It isn’t just a review of the play, it’s a history lesson on theater. Wonderful.

Awarded the New Times Best Production of 1995.  Steve won the Tribune Newspapers’ Maxie Award for Best Actor in a Drama.

Steven Mastroieni as King Beringer in Eugene Ionesco's "Exit the King" at In Mixed Company. (Photo credit unknown)
Steven Mastroieni as King Beringer in Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King” at In Mixed Company. (Photo from the collection of Steven Mastroieni)

Here is Marshall’s review, courtesy of the New Times:

It seemed absurd a few months ago to read the obituaries of Eugene Ionesco. Hadn’t he been dead for years? Was this a variation on the old joke about Franco? Overshadowed by the genius of Samuel Beckett, Ionesco’s plays have seemed like literary footnotes from the past, ranking with those of the Dadaists as dramatic curiosities. With wry self-deprecation, Ionesco wrote of himself, “It’s not worth rereading his words: nothing new.” A French-Rumanian born in 1912, Ionesco is best known for the one-acts that are staples of academia: The Bald Soprano, The Lesson and The Chairs. His fame is as father of the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement, which looked at human existence through a kaleidoscope of fractured images intended to sharpen our perceptions by ridiculing the absurdities we accept as the commonplace. Although Ionesco wrote his last play in 1970, his work ceased being shown in New York more than 30 years ago with the 1961 Broadway production of Rhinoceros starring the late Zero Mostel.

Entombed alive in the mausoleum of public neglect, Ionesco sometimes has seemed more important as an influence (notably on contemporary writers like Edward Albee) than as a dramatic force in his own right. We therefore should be grateful to the enterprising new professional production entity In Mixed Company for mounting an electrifying production of the playwright’s 1963 masterpiece Exit the King. It thunders with resonance. Exit the King is a scathing tragicomedy that examines the process of dying. This somber subject is held under the scrutiny of unblinking honesty, and the poetry that emerges is as inevitable as a final breath. Director David Barker and his team of designers have created a universe that is a circus of the senses, plunked down in the middle of the audience, where we witness the high-wire act of extinction only a heartbeat away from our own experience.

Tempe Performing Arts Center is arranged so the audience is stretched out along a runway that is at once a playground and an obstacle course. At one end of a huge ramp, a guard wails like a siren through a gigantic megaphone, announcing the characters of the play who emerge from the black void at the opposite end of the theatre. These are two queens, one dour and threatening with the face of a lemon, the other beautiful and giddy like a voluptuous passion fruit; a doctor/astrologer/minister, with his telescope and his watch; a simple servant with a broom; and, finally, in a red robe like the Little King from the comic strip, flaunting long Louis XIV curls, the king himself.

A huge swing serves as the throne for the playful king. A pool of balloons invites the characters to dive at various times when they are submerged by an inability to act–like one of those nightmares in which, frozen in fear, your legs seem glued to the floor and you can’t run. High above a cardboard floor, ominous loops of rope hang like a hemp jungle gym, threatening to trap the characters in a web of nooses. It is eerie. The audience looks nervously from side to side, unable to guess what might be in store next, a laugh or a cry of anguish. The king peers at the front row: “I don’t know this audience–and I don’t want to!”

The king, we are told, is going to die. In fact, he has exactly one hour and 45 minutes to live. At first, the incredulous king receives the news with panache. He has the certain conviction of immortality so familiar in the young. “You’re going to die,” he is told. He snaps back: “I know that. We all know that. You must remind me when the time comes.” But as the play proceeds, the king begins to discover the truth of the prediction. He loses his robes, he loses his luxurious wig. Pale and vulnerable, his will is no longer absolute: nature disobeys his every wish. “Sun: Hold back the night!” pleads the king. “Turn back time. Let it be last week.” The forces of change insinuate themselves inexorably into the action.

It is very hard to let go. “Why was I born if it wasn’t forever?” cries the king. “I never had time to get to know life.” The remaining minutes are ticked off for us by the somber Queen Marguerite with her black fingernails, while the soulful Queen Marie is helpless to intervene. Love cannot postpone the ultimate ending. Desperately, the king recalls all the books he meant to read. “So many worlds will die in me.” Fearful of his compulsory doom, he begs, “Let me go on living, century after century, even with a raging toothache! I don’t want to be embalmed, buried, burned.” The king reminisces about the nature of the life he will be leaving: “A trip to the market, the wonder of the ordinary.”

In a sequence in which he recalls his fondness for a little ginger cat, the drama touches a moment of specific contact between the searching soul of an individual with the external reality of the existential “other.” His memory of the creature’s adoration, mirroring, perhaps, his own narcissism, is humanly touching, an image beyond intellect that purrs with vibrant resonance. “Teach me resignation, teach me serenity, teach me indifference.”

Director Barker has assembled a perfect cast, finely attuned to the playful terror that divides each moment. Barbara McGrath is especially chilling as the ominous Queen Marguerite. Russ Wendt as the Doctor is tall and still, enigmatic behind his sunglasses. Allen Lea and Cindy Wynn find quirky moves and vocal patterns that amuse even as they abstract in the roles of the Guard and the servant Juliette. Joy Lynn Pak is a warm and sensual Queen Marie. Best of all is Steven Mastroieni as the King. His performance focuses on the journey from arrogance to acceptance with a keen economy. Most impressive is the ensemble nature of the work. True ensemble playing is a rarity, in which all of the participants inhabit the same world, the world of the play. Barker has his cast intoning lines at odd moments and moving abstractly, but always creating the absurd universe that is Ionesco’s.

As a disclaimer, it should be acknowledged that the director, David Barker, is a colleague of mine on the faculty at ASU. I am delighted to discover the excellence he displays here, which sets a high standard of accomplishment for professional theatre in the Valley.