Balm in Gilead, Hypocrites, at the Chopin Theatre. Lanford Wilson’s breakthrough play about junkies, hookers, trannies, and small-time hoods is nearly 40 years old. And as with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, time has dulled its once-shocking evocation of life on society’s margins. Yet the piece–which sealed Steppenwolf’s reputation as the best ensemble in America more than two decades ago–still has a powerful hold on actors and directors. Sean Graney’s nearly perfect staging for the Hypocrites seethes and sings with hopelessness, humor, and the desperate search for drugs, power, and love.
The play opens with a plaintive soul ballad (sung beautifully by Anthony “Rev.” Wills Jr.), interrupted by the thunderous, angry entrance of the coffee shop’s denizens (Graney’s wonderfully cast ensemble includes some skinheads and goths, suggesting an early-80s Lower East Side setting). In a visceral, intelligent choice repeated throughout the production, whenever these lost souls are about to find some peaceful communion with another, they’re consumed by the surrounding rage and chaos. As Darlene, the new girl looking for her niche in this dark world, Niki Prugh skillfully negotiates the shift from naivete to despair, and she delivers the play’s famous (and famously long) second-act monologue with a mesmerizing simplicity. Steve Wilson as Joe, the dealer who wins and breaks Darlene’s heart, seems slightly less assured at first, but by the end he’s captured the tragic essence of this lost boy, caught in a game he can never win.