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BWW Interview: Martha Plimpton's Balancing Act

Martha Plimpton has a pedigree of theater, film and television credits, but her turn as the troubled daughter Julia in Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Delicate Balance is her first at-bat with Albee.

"I've never done any Albee before and I was extremely thrilled to be asked to be part of the production," she said before a recent preview. Glenn Close (Agnes) and John Lithgow (Tobias) play her parents, a wealthy middle-aged couple whose life has been besieged by Agnes' alcoholic sister Claire (Lindsay Duncan) and close friends Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins).

The play, as described by Albee, "is set in the living room of a large and well-appointed suburban house" and takes place "now." Julia has come home to roost (again) in the wake of her fourth failed marriage, and the household is further disturbed. Existential angst and absolute undefined terror steer this ever-timely play (it premiered in 1966) through an unsettled weekend when close friends Edna and Harry decide to move in.

"These are the best people I have ever worked with," said Plimpton. "And I wanted to work again at home and it was a kind of no-brainer."

Plimpton, though weaned on Albee plays, "never had that kind of intimate thing with it," she said. "I grew up interested in his work-I read 'The Zoo Story' when I was a kid in school and had a passing knowledge, not a deep knowledge."

Julia is a special challenge for Plimpton. Albee "has said that Julia remains one of the most enigmatic characters and one of the toughest ones," she said. "I think Julia represents a certain incompleteness. Albee has given a few clues, but not too many."

The production, nearly three hours long, is a difficult one to digest, for the characters and the audience, she said. "It's a hard play in general for anybody. We tend to think-when we think of American drama-of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, who have clear structures. In Albee's play there's a sense of chaos and people are altered more in this modern drama. Despite the somber tone, there are also humorous notes interspersed, Plimpton said.

Directed by Pam MacKinnon, who won Tony and Drama Desk awards in 2013 for her direction of Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, steers the cast seamlessly. Santo Loquasto, scenic designer, has created the perfect habitat for the upper-crusted who inhabit this imploding world.

Julia has sought refuge in her childhood home after every failed marriage. "Julia doesn't have a through line, much of what she is," said Plimpton, "is implied. She's a loud presence in the play and there are also moments of great passion." Julia's fraught relationship with her parents is further strained by the presence of Edna and Harry. "Agnes is not terribly mutable in how we think of a modern heroine," said Plimpton. "Albee works in a mysterious, almost absurdist way. It's hard to get a handle on. He's slippery."

The play examines the privileged lifestyle in excruciating detail, she said. "It's in literary mode: the language is more important than events and actions which come through the process."

There are patterns to detect in the monologues and interplay among Agnes and Tobias and their friends. "Certainly there are words that are repeated, certain themes of terror, friendship, family, love and absence of love, grief, alienation from loved ones and marriage," Plimpton said. "Everyone who sees it will have a different experience."

Plimpton was reluctant to offer her take on the play's ultimate meaning. "You'd have to ask Albee. People will have to see how it alters them, that's where the play really lives. I know that sounds like a cop out but I don't like talk-backs. I don't like to tell audiences what they should see."

The universal and timeless qualities of the play complement the characters' motivations, she said. "It's not a period piece, even though it was written in the mid-'60s," she said. "There are certain themes that were central to the time, but Albee is saying that these upper class, white Americans, the country club set, exist in every generation. The upper class is in a state of existential terror quite often and for whatever reason. I think that's true.

"It's strictly about human feelings not limited by time or place." Plimpton also sees the play as a cautionary tale. "I think this work is extremely prescient. It was written in the height of the Cold War, and there are comparisons to be made.

"Take immigration," she said. "We have a real fear in this country despite our origins of alien penetration, whether by immigration or ideas or disease. Agnes needs to be protective of her home and family and she is trying to address a kind of corrosive terror."

Julia is not easily pigeon-holed. "She's an older child" -close to 40-"and she has grown up with two parents who are in profound and lasting grief," Plimpton said. "On a certain level, she's emotionally arrested. In many ways she's infantile, has some issues with narcissism and an inability to control her impulses," she said. "She loves her aunt, who is a wonderfully exciting yet frightening presence in the house."

Plimpton said she thrives on the immediacy of a live audience. "I just like to work. There are different skills required for each medium, and I enjoy all of them. But doing plays is an opportunity to get really down in the guts. I love the experience with an audience and them altering it with their presence. I like the process of doing it night after night and becoming more skilled over time.

"Audiences come to the theater knowing they're watching people at work, and it makes them engaged," she said. "I hope they walk away having enjoyed the evening and have an enriching experience."

A Delicate Balance is playing at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos

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