It would be hard to dream up a more enticing, star-encrusted cast and creative team -- at least on paper -- than the artists assembled to return attention to "A Delicate Balance." After all, it has been 18 years since Edward Albee's lesser-known masterwork, which won the 1967 Pulitzer but little love, finally got the acclaim it deserved in a brilliant revival.
Where that production let Albee's brutally articulate power play unfold and blister from cool serenity, however, this one -- starring John Lithgow, Martha Plimpton and a surprisingly uncertain Glenn Close -- is emotionally extravagant from the start.
Thus, although the play still dazzles with wit, gorgeous writing and the lurking terror of mortality, we miss the accumulating shock he gave to the characters' lives of cozy self-satisfaction. Director Pam MacKinnon, whose 2013 Tony-winning production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" found staggering revelations in the familiar drama, spells things out here instead of letting Albee toy with us through suggestion and suspense.
Close and Lithgow are Agnes and Tobias, long-married, smug and seemingly impervious to the live-in irritation of her alcoholic, truth-telling sister (the delightfully caustic Lindsay Duncan) and even the return of their daughter (Plimpton, powerfully conflicted) after a fourth failed marriage. But no one is prepared for the arrival of the couple's best friends (the excellent Clare Higgins and Bob Balaban), who mysteriously "got scared" and moved in.
Albee challenges the limits of friendship when the infectious disease of mortality comes through the door. He also challenges actors with tyrannical syntactic demands -- mouthfuls of polysyllabic, unforgiving, grown-up paragraphs that require virtuosos to make them sound like speech.
Lithgow is droll and manor-born as the retired Tobias, though we never believe he is as ineffectual as Agnes claims. Oddly, Close, who has three best-actress Tonys, seemed daunted at a recent preview by Agnes' exhilarating but Olympian monologues. Stumbling over the words is a special problem for a silver fox who fancies herself the fulcrum of the family's equilibrium. For reasons unknown, while designer Ann Roth dresses everyone else with an acute timeless conflation of the mid-'60s and today, Close's Agnes is overdressed to distraction, lounging around the living-room in gowns and jewels.
Where Albee describes a "large and well-appointed suburban house," MacKinnon envisions a grandiose mansion, impressively designed by Santo Loquasto with nonstop crystal chandeliers. Thus, instead of upsetting the balance of self-satisfied old money, the scene screams ostentation. Nothing, alas, is delicate.
WHAT "A Delicate Balance"
WHERE Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO $60-$155; 212-239-6200; adelicatebalancebroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Brilliant Albee, but unhinged balance.