The playwright and novelist Jean Genet may be as famous for his life as for his work. His early stints in jail certainly informed his stagecraft. The Balcony, a claustrophobic acting-out of the interchangeability of illusion and reality, is no exception.
Genet's best known play, The Blacks, directed by Gene Frankel (RIP), had the longest off-Broadway run of any straight play in the 1960s. The Balcony, too, has a notable history that includes (after various international bannings) a 1960 Peter Brook production in Paris and a New York debut at Circle in the Square, which starred Nancy Marchand and Sylvia Miles. While it is interesting as a psychological study and says something about its times, as drama it's lacking.
The plot, such as it is, can be summed up very quickly. When a violent revolution deposes the authorities, a group of role-players from a whorehouse-dungeon get drafted to fulfill the functions of the characters they've been play-acting. In this unabridged production the story runs three and a half hours, including an intermission. It is educational, but not edifying to see the fullness of what Genet intended since much of the play, including almost the entire second act, is an incoherent jumble.
It's not the fault of the new translation (by director, Barbara Vann), which seems fluid enough. Vann also plays the demanding, central role of Madame Irma with a stinky-sweet, dilapidated grandeur that, early on, rivets the attention. Within the relatively safe haven of her "House of Illusion" — a combination whorehouse and S&M role-playing dungeon, warrened with mirrors, costumes and sets — the "girls," still much in demand amidst the chaos outside, press on providing their services while Madame anxiously awaits the arrival of the Chief of Police and his assurance of protection.
The patrons, as much as the staff, are under no illusions about their illusions. "My being a Judge," says the pompous "Judge" to the girl who works his scene, "is an emanation of your being a thief," but to some of the "girls," their roles become more than mere jobs. Carmen (Louise Martin) talks about her favorite role while helping with the accounts, declaiming to the fidgety, reality-dependent Irma that "Your bookkeeping will never replace my apparition." "I have my games," Irma fires back, "and you have your orgies of the heart."