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By Brian Scott Lipton

Words, words, words. In the works of Edward Albee, words are used carefully to explain, to hurt, to conceal – and require actors who understand all their meanings, both textual and subtextual. Fortunately, Tony Award winners Glenn Close, John Lithgow, and Lindsay Duncan, former nominee Martha Plimpton, Clare Higgins, Bob Balaban–prove they known exactly how to handle them in Pam MacKinnon’s often riveting revival of Albee’s 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Delicate Balance,” now at the John Golden Theatre through February 22.

The play’s first words are spoken by the elegantly-clad Agnes (the superb Close), the seemingly self- assured lady of the WASP manor (as evidenced by Santo Loquasto’s ultra-luxurious set). As she goes on about how she expects to never lose her sanity – a foreshadowing of many of the play’s themes, some of which aren’t revealed until midway through this nearly three-hour drama – one isn’t entirely sure who she is trying to reassure: herself or her mild-mannered, outwardly serene husband Tobias (the equally excellent Lithgow).

As it turns out, Agnes manages to maintain not just her sanity, but her almost regal composure, over the course of one fateful weekend, And Albee gives her plenty to handle: the piercing if often drunken arrows thrown by her “alcoholic” younger sister Claire (Duncan); the return of her much-married, much-separated, and perpetually unhappy daughter Julia (Plimpton), and especially the surprise arrival of the couple’s best friends, nebbish Harry (Balaban) and his far more forthright wife Edna (Higgins), who have fled their house after experiencing an unnamed “terror,” seeking refuge with their longtime pals.

Julia, Harry and Edna’s presence throws off the “delicate balance” of this carefully composed household — along with Agnes and Tobias’ marriage, after Harry and Edna insist on becoming permanent houseguests. Watching the usually imploding Tobias explode in an impassioned (and somewhat surprising) speech to Harry as he makes his decision is one of the high points of this play, thanks to Lithgow’s stunning work.

MacKinnon, who helmed the recent Tony Award-winning revival of Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” has long been keenly attuned to Albee’s specific language, while also having the dexterity to make even his talkiest speeches feel natural. She also knows how to guide her cast expertly in maintaining this balancing act, since these are not necessarily people you would otherwise want to spend three minutes with, never mind three hours.

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*Photos: Bridgette Lacombe