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Theater Review (NYC): Balm in Gilead – What Kind of Neighborhood Is This?

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There is a theater benediction for those working downtown, Off Broadway, Off Off Broadway, and in community theater, and I paraphrase: may your audience always outnumber your cast. Producing Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, with its 29 roles, the T. Schreiber Studio would seem to be tempting fate; instead director Peter Jensen has orchestrated a raucous symphony of a play that draws a capacity crowd to its feet.

It’s hard to believe, with Manhattan the way it is now, that when Lanford Wilson wrote Balm in Gilead in 1964, his play reflected an Upper West Side reality. The scene, an all-night diner frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers, is a cacophony of human desperation against a backdrop of urban decay. A deliberate exaggeration in the number of characters, all with overlapping dialogue, Balm in Gilead was a dramatic expression of a modernist abstract painting. Now it is a show already in progress.

 

Like picking out the sound of a particular instrument in an orchestra, it is difficult to cite specific performances—the huge cast is too daunting in numbers to give due credit. Some roles, like Babe (Lisa Sobin), who spends most of the evening slumped on the diner counter in a drug stupor, are on the periphery of the play, reflecting the unhappy state of the disenfranchised. Other roles are singers who lead in with a cappella doo-wop and move and weave, to rock music, through the actors, bookending and then propelling the story with song. Still others are characters who do a St. Vitus dance to Wilson’s splendid soliloquies. All make up a complex tapestry.

When Dopey (Lawrence Crimlis, pictured above) speaks, a spotlight shines and the players all freeze at attention, a surreal moment that heightens the chaos that is inevitable when the action continues. We don’t always see it, but each character is in his or her own spotlight all the time, and Jensen does an exceptional job emphasizing just how intensified an environment each character experiences even when all the audience can discern is the noise of a busy diner.

Ann, the prostitute with the heart of gold, stops short of being a caricature of that prostitute through Jill Bianchini’s performance. There is something in the stillness in which she holds her body that stands in striking contrast to all the nervous energy around her, both natural and drug-induced.

Ann listens to the story of Darlene, the new girl on the block who is destined to take Ann’s place. All quiet attention, Ann slowly spoons warm soup into her hungry mouth, and in a remarkably quiet moment, takes in sustenance while exuding it, all patience and empathy to the tragedy that Darlene, lonely, heartbreaken, lies at her feet.

Darlene (Belle Caplis, above right) is a rookie to the neighborhood, recently moved from Chicago, a broken romance behind her and more heartache ahead. Ms. Caplis had a sing-song cadence to her lines, perhaps to emphasize her smalltown artlessness, her otherness. It wasn’t until Darlene gets to tell her story, in a stream of consciousness that would make Joyce proud, if not puzzled, by the tale of an overlong line at the Justice of the Peace, that Ms. Caplis got out of the cartoonish rhythms that overwhelmed the character earlier.

Two other standout performances were Sebastian Montoya as John, behind the diner counter, and Jonathan Wilde as Joe (above left);  the characters are parallel in their disbelief at some of the events that surround them. Both are able to temporarily cut swathes through some of the chaos that surrounds them, but in the end it isn’t enough.

Today, that diner may not be found, at least in the contemporary Upper West Side, but it does exist. It’s just moved. Recently re-watching David Simon’s brilliant television series, The Wire, I was startled to see the same characters that populated Wilson’s play—the drug dealers and prostitutes, the unwanted members of society, caught in a cycle of poverty and crime that begins in New York City and moves to Simon’s Baltimore. Wilson’s play, his first, is as relevant today as it was addressing humanity in impoverishment in the 60’s.

With musical direction by Stephanie Seward, Balm In Gilead runs through November 21.

Additional cast includes: Amanda Catrini, Jevon McFerrin, Alona Metcalf, Jason Pumarada (singers) Seth Allen (Martin), Ian Bell (David), Esteban Benito (Tig), Dennis Brito (Frank), Tommy Buck (Al), Lowell Byers (Bob), Ian Campbell Dunn (Fick), Jordan Feltner (Rake), Brad Martocello (Tim), Mariel Matero (Kay), Erica Lauren McLaughlin (Bonnie), Michael W. Murray (Stranger), Orland J. Rivera (Carlo), Olivia Rorick (Judy), Stephanie Seward (Terry), Eric Spear (Franny), Christine Vega (Rust), Stewart Villilo (Ernesto), Richard Zekaria (Xavier).

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About Kate Shea Kennon