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.”
Meanwhile Chantal (the stunning Shruti Shah) has left the whorehouse and become a living symbol of the revolution. We all tread the line between reality and illusion.
Yes, we get it. The three opening scenes (the best part of the play) make the point quite well. The mincing, effulgent, vain Bishop; the proud Judge who wants to dominate, but also to be dominated, just a little; and the silver-tongued, half-mad General who makes his whore his horse – all bloviate effectively about the psychological and philosophical meaning of their role-play. It’s just the sort of thing an intellectual in prison would have plenty of time to ponder (and, in this case, note down).
It’s also not the fault of the performances. There is amateurishness in a few of the minor roles, but the central characters come vividly, indeed campily to life. In particular, Peter Schmitz’s old coot of a “General” is a fascinatingly bizarre character, and Martin has several wonderful speeches. A choreographed conversation in Act II has an effective elegance, while Ron Dreyer as the brothel’s assistant/man-about-the-house brings a touchingly cloddish sadness to his scenes.
The early role-playing scenes contain most of the S&M elements that scandalized audiences and authorities of the 1950s. By today’s standards, they are so tame as to be barely noticeable. What a difference a half-century makes. For the homoerotic elements, one must wait till very near the end, by which time one has grown too impatient to care. After the too-long scene that makes up the second half of Act I, and the interminable political grandstanding of Act II, broken only by occasional flashes of humor and clarity, we just want to escape the prison with Genet and get out into the world, even if the streets are running with blood.