LOWELL - In Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance," Agnes and Tobias's living room reeks of elegance and patrician wealth. And in Merrimack Repertory Theatre's smart, sharp production, the energy expended to maintain that patina of comfort and security creates a tension in the room that is obvious as soon as Tobias deviates from his after-dinner drink routine by choosing anisette instead of the more sophisticated cognac. "Sticky," Agnes says with distaste.
"A Delicate Balance" bowed on Broadway in 1966 and returns to the theme of marital disillusionment Albee explored in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Here Agnes and Tobias's interdependence has the consistency of that glass of anisette: sticky, but unsatisfying.
At first, the quiet Tobias (Jack Davidson) and the chatty control freak Agnes (Jennifer Harmon) seem to be working hard at playing the roles of the comfortably married husband and wife, but as Agnes ponders the possibility that she may one day go mad, the frayed borders of the couple's carefully constructed world begin to unravel.
The first person to take advantage of a worn spot is Agnes's boozy sister Claire (Penny Fuller), who's been living with Agnes and Tobias since rejecting Alcoholics Anonymous. ("I was just a drunk," she says. "They were sick and I was merely . . . willful.") Her spontaneous responses are anathema to Agnes, and she delights in embarrassing Agnes and comforting Tobias at every opportunity.
She's soon joined by Julia (Gloria Biegler), Tobias and Agnes's daughter, who may be pushing 40 but is still a spoiled brat, and who is returning home after the collapse of her fourth marriage. Agnes might find a way to manage these annoying distractions from her routine, but when their best friends, Edna (Jill Tanner) and Harry (Ross Bickell), arrive unannounced on their doorstep, fleeing a terror they cannot name, Agnes is undone.
Albee structures "A Delicate Balance" like a drawing room comedy, and director Charles Towers guides his ensemble through their paces with a light but firm hand. He knows how to mine the play's laughs, but constantly reminds us that just below the surface are painful tales of infidelity, the death of a child, and an inability to connect. The calm, cool look of Bill Clarke's living room set, with its imposing picture window, creates the impression that this fractured family is living in a glass bubble, barely protected from the chaos outside.
In this world, the power position is held by whoever is standing at the bar, dispensing the alcohol that will dull their senses. Davidson plays Tobias as a man who keeps his head down, relishing his position as barkeep and remaining comfortably numb, relying on Agnes to manage the crises around him. When Tobias is finally stirred to action by the plight of his friend, he summons surprising if misplaced passion, which bounces off Harry without making an impact.
As Agnes, Harmon is ramrod stiff even as she pretends graciousness, and it's only when she identifies the "plague" that Edna and Harry have brought with them that she admits the toll keeping the family "in shape" has taken on her.
In the third act, the image of a lovely forest appears through that oversize window, and the contrast with the hollow excuse for life inside leaves us with a wrenching sense of this family's tragedy.