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Nobody beats an idea to death like an absurdist playwright, except maybe an exercised leftist—or the French—so you can just imagine how much fun awaits in The Balcony, Jean Genet’s epic jeer at power and its temptations. It’s something of an accomplishment, really: a show that somehow makes politics, sex, and the fetishistic urge tedious.
Things don’t start off boring: In a nameless and nervously unstable country, a judge, a bishop, and a general (or rather three men who covet those positions) frequent a famous bordello, getting their rocks off while role-playing their fantasies. Later, when the revolution comes, they’re forced to take on the actual jobs and install the madam as queen. All power is illusion, see, all social roles just variations on drag, and we all whore ourselves in pursuit of position and influence.
It’s not the style that’s missing: Robert McNamara’s colorfully bawdy Scena Theatre production wraps the judge (Buck O’Leary) in scarlet robes and sets him a-quivering at the sight of a thief crying mercy before a whip-wielding executioner; it also sets the general (Terence Heffernan) a-frolicking with his horse in a gaudy Napoleonic get-up. It straps the bishop (Kim Curtis) into 6-inch platform lace-ups; it also parades one comely prostitute (a ravishingly poised Danielle Davy) in little more than a safety-pinned black sheath. Ringmastering this sociopolitical circus is Rena Cherry Brown’s fishnetted, bustiered madam—playful with her favorite whores, hard-nosed with her dithering clients, and jumpier by the minute about the machine-gun fire (which seems to be getting closer) and her police-chief lover, (who seems to be missing in action).
Nor is it attitude that’s in short supply. Genet’s text, at least in the uncredited translation McNamara’s using, is a kind of lumbering masterpiece; it lurches from derisive rhapsody to sullen, leering confrontation to brief, breathtaking intimacy—where it draws up short for an instant, only to laugh, caustically, with contemptuous glee at having drawn you in.
The trouble is that it lumbers and lurches and leers repeatedly, with an enfant terrible’s fondness for the noise of his own transgressions. And what must have seemed genuinely alarming in the late ’30s—before two generations of viciousness and political bankruptcy left us all as jaded as Genet—hardly raises an eyebrow in the 21st century. A judge who needs his naughty thief to be bad so he’ll have someone to discipline? Mildly interesting, as a critique of interdependent social roles; as a titillating stage gambit, though, it’s kind of a yawn.
What’s left to make theater with is energy and craft: Lacking much of the latter (though Brown, Davy, and Frank Britton’s royal envoy do deploy a bit here and there), McNamara’s staging settles mostly for the energy. And so Genet’s famously revolutionary play does indeed end up feeling something like genius—roughly 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Because it’s theater, though, we’re apparently expected to sit through the whole 100 percent.