Actress leads in Broadway's ''A Delicate Balance''

By Jess Cagle
Updated June 14, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s a moment in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance when Elaine Stritch, as Claire, the family drunk, shocks you by — sitting down. Yes, Stritch shoots zingers in her trademark truck-on-a-dirt-road voice, but it’s the brittle body language that telegraphs volumes. As if she can’t even find the strength to make polite contact with a chair, the beleaguered actress’ slide to the floor evokes unspeakable boredom and loneliness.

Chalk up one more priceless moment in a flawless career. But the role is also a personal zenith for Stritch, whose own drinking and take-no-prisoners wit are as legendary along Broadway as her performances in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970) and Follies (1971). Recovery ”taught me to play Claire with knowledge, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Stritch, 70, who stopped drinking not quite a decade ago. ”I always quote Sondheim’s lyric from ‘Anyone Can Whistle,’ ‘What’s hard is simple, what’s natural comes hard.’ I say it all the time, but nobody picks up on it. Dumb interviewers.”

Stritch, who lives alone in Manhattan, has been honing her talents for 50 years on stage, TV (The Cosby Show), and film (Cocoon: The Return) and enjoys all but landmark status amongst her peers. Alas, this year’s Tony for Lead Actress in a Play went to Zoe Caldwell, for her showier role as Maria Callas in Master Class. ”If you think you should win, you don’t have to,” says Stritch, who has never brought home a Tony. ”Jesus, wouldn’t it be nice if I meant that?”