Thanks to Seinfeld and its countless imitators, the coffee shop has become a clichéd setting. Those who go into Balm in Gilead expecting the '90s version of hanging out in a coffee shop-wherein beautiful people who never seem to work sit around discussing their sex lives and old TV shows-are in for a severe case of culture shock. This gritty play-a landmark for playwright Lanford Wilson; La Mama, where it was created in 1965; and Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, who made it famous in 1984-features decidedly unbeautiful people hanging out in a coffee shop. Many of them are working as they hang out, turning tricks or dealing drugs. And they don't have to discuss their sex lives because their sex lives are out there for all to see, from the hookers to the lesbian love triangle to the hassled transvestites.
Directors Merry Beamer and Thomas Coté did an amazing job staging this masterstroke of ensemble performance. The 28 cast members occasionally occupied the stage all at once, with half-a-dozen or more conversations taking place simultaneously. The volumes of the conversations were varied so efficiently that the most important dialogue of the moment was heard clearly but did not obscure the other interactions. What the spectators saw and heard looked and sounded exactly like what they would see and hear if they walked into an actual diner peopled with a boisterous, indelicate crowd.
Balm in Gilead is set in 1965, but the period is evoked not so much by the content of the play (there's no mention of any of the '60s political issues) as by its style: experimental theater, unflinching in its realism, that was quite innovative 30 years ago. Wilson forsakes traditional linear narrative in favor of overlapping scenes, intermittent singing, repetitive dialogue, and a myriad background characters-some of whom contribute to the drama merely with their presence.
There is one central story in the play: that of Darlene, a new arrival from the Midwest who becomes involved with Joe, a low-level pusher who has crossed the wrong supplier. Darlene's lengthy monologue about her previous lover was a feat of endurance and verisimilitude for Tracy Newirth, who played Darlene, and Lori Putnam, as the hard-bitten prostitute who listens to her. David Andrew Salper, in an almost painfully realistic portrayal of an incoherent addict, also impressed with his monologue-half of which was muttered as a louder conversation transpired at another table. All the performers were very natural and authentic. Among those with more conspicuous roles were Coté, Gary Riotto, Carla-Anne Burks and Keri Meoni.
Balm in Gilead was resurrected by the Steppenwolf/Circle Rep production of 1984, and this revival (the first in New York since then) is a worthy successor, with its striking mise en scène as well as memorable individual elements.
(Also featuring Joe Gatti, Isabel Acosta, Seth Foster, Paula D. Ralph, Michael Llraé, Dann B. Black, Richard Kent Green, Michael Edmund, Petra Dielewicz, Laurie Kilmartin, LC Harrell, Nathaniel Nicco-Annan, Bob Manus, Roger Del Pozo, Daniel Brennan, Dennis Kyriakos, Gilberto Arribas, Pailo Heitz, Noah Kass, Kelly Morast and Nancy Harkins. Sets, Bill Wood; costumes, Anna Sellinger; lighting, Zdenek Kriz.)
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Copyright 1998 Adrienne Onofri