By Ken Morgan   Published Oct 11, 2005 at 5:10 AM

{image1}After the opening zinger cunningly designed to get your attention, I usually get my reviews started by telling you what the play is about.

This time, I can't. I don't have a clue what this was about.

I can tell you that Lanford Wilson's 1964 play(?) "Balm In Gilead" is set in the busiest and noisiest diner in the world. Into this diner, day or night, come the prostitutes, junkies, drug dealers, and gay bois, along with the unemployed, the drifters, the rootless, the shiftless and a few other characters you won't soon be inviting into your home. This must be where the damned go for lunch -- the only thing lacking is a sign saying "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here."

The diner is in a constant uproar, with people fighting, panhandling, hustling, dealing and being thrown out. It's hard to see how they stay in business, anybody normal with money to spend walking in the door would take one look and run for their lives.

The diner isn't a set -- they built a working diner in the huge space at Bucketworks, and in an attempt for a gritty you-are-there realism, the audience seems to have a table. The play has a HUGE cast of 38 people, most of whom are little more than audio set pieces. Some have names, but since they are rarely addressed by name, you'll have fun figuring out who is who.

There does seem to be a story wandering through the crowd, you just have to pick it out through the bedlam. At some point, you'll note that a man and a woman seem to be getting more focus than the other people, and if you concentrate, you'll discover that their names are Joe Conroy and Darlene. Joe is a male prostitute? A drug dealer? Both? Anyway, he has a problem with his drug supplier, who he hasn't paid. Darlene is ... I can't tell you anything about her. Towards the end of the second act, they leave the diner and go back to her place -- or is it his? -- so he can slip his hamburger into her bun, the first clue that the story is about them.

In the second act, a character finally leaps out at you. I'm not sure what she does, her name is Ann, played by Kathryn Ambler, the only actor in the show I can single out as having any stage presence. Her place in the plot is uncertain. After the usual churning action in the diner, Joe's drug dealer shows up, and kills him in the diner, not once, but three times in a well staged but bewildering stop action effect. The diner barely reacts to Joe's death, caught up in their individual and private hell, and the story ends with Jeana Stillman as Darlene delivering the play's last line, which is ... umm, I don't know. I couldn't hear it, and I was sitting up front.

The brand-new Dramatists Theatre has set a goal of showcasing the works of a single playwright for an entire season, and this year's choice is Lanford Wilson. It's an intriguing idea, and of course one wishes them well, but with "Balm In Gilead" I have to come out and say that I just didn't get it. And I tried, I tried really hard.

I can't imagine what director Rae McMillion was thinking, she must have known the problems the audience would have. This show is all over the place, and the result is chaos. Convention is confusingly broken several times -- sometimes the audience is there to be panhandled, sometimes they aren't.

The diner denizens form a Greek chorus of sorts to hum along with Joe and Darlene's sex scene, and you'll be hard pressed trying to figure out what that was all about. The worst of it is that the crucial speeches are lost in the big space and the big crowd. Barnum and Bailey isolate the simultaneous action in three rings with spotlights, but here, there is no clear focus on the essential action, so you find yourself watching minor characters and losing the plot.

And even when you know who to concentrate on, the naturalistic acting style has the characters mumbling their lines, or talking way in the back or through a crowd, and along with the distractions of other conversations going on, it's frustrating trying to make out what they're saying. It's like trying to pick out a conversation in the cacophony of a real diner, which I suppose is the effect they were after, but you know how successful that's going to be. I simply could not understand what was going on. Sorry folks, this show is a mess.

Summing up, it's a noble and ambitious stage experiment that reflects a lot of hard effort, but it just doesn't work. "Balm In Gilead" plays in the theatre space at Bucketworks, 1319 N. Martin Luther King Dr., through Oct. 22. Call (414) 243-9168 for tickets.