Balm in Gilead. Directed by Ashley Gates. Starring Johanna Mattox, Damon Seawell, Benton Greene, Gabriel Carter, and others. Presented by the Encore Theater Company at the Magic Theater, Northside, Building D, at Fort Mason, through July 13. Call 441-3687.

"You ever read the Bible?" one of the night-cat characters in Lanford Wilson's greasy-spoon play shouts across the diner. "They had embalming fluid back then." There's no answer to this, any more than there is balm (as in remedy or salvation) in Gilead in the biblical passage that lends the show its name: All of Wilson's characters are fallen urban types drawn from the streets of New York during the '60s, and most of them, at least in the first act, deal out scraps of noisy, unanswerable conversation. Pimps, drug dealers, drag queens, lesbian hookers, hit men, bums, and street kids with names like Dopey, Fick, and Rake -- Wilson has self-consciously put a class of people onstage and tried to make them bristle with life. And they do, sort of. The chaotic scenes in this production are lively, but they never quite find their groove, not in the way the photo-realistic scenes in Mike Leigh's Ecstasy did, for example, last March in Berkeley. Both shows are meant to be vivid snapshots of a time and place, but where Ecstasy managed some beautifully molten, meaningless intervals of dumb human noise, Balm in Gilead never stops feeling jerky and strained.

The story focuses on Darlene, an innocent girl from the Midwest who hangs out in the diner without quite fitting in, and Joe, a small-time drug dealer. Darlene is new enough in New York to be optimistic; Joe and almost everyone else relies on controlled substances. The romance between them is the still point in the first act's swirl of chatter. A few other characters have monologues -- Dopey, who works as a narrator; Ann, a burly prostitute; and Rake, who gives what would be a funny speech about umbrellas if it weren't so rotely delivered -- but Darlene's sad affair with Joe forms the backbone of the play. Darlene is portrayed unevenly at first by Johanna Mattox, but in Act 2, during a long and airheaded story about trying to get married in Chicago, Mattox overcomes some of the show's stiffness and turns in a warm and funny performance. There are other moments, too -- Benton Greene as Dopey, Gabriel Carter as Fick, and John Robb as a rather useless character named Al manage to find voices or gestures that seem honest.

The overall limpidness in the acting may be a problem with the directing, partly because it's so general and partly because of some other distracting touches. The play is set -- pinned, really, by the costumes and the price of food -- in the mid-'60s, but for music we get Led Zeppelin (late '60s), Tom Waits (early '70s), and U2 (!). The songs work with the show's atmosphere but jerk around with its time frame, giving the impression that someone just wasn't paying attention. Unless, of course, it was director Ashley Gates' effort to make the show seem timeless: In that case the music stands as an example of why broad universalizing strokes don't work nearly as well as sticking to the particular.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Scapin, the Cheat! By Moliere. Directed by Lillian Garret-Groag. Starring Joe Vincent, Peter J. Macon, David Ellenstein, Deanne Lorette, and Tanya Shaffer. Presented by the California Shakespeare Festival at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Gateway Exit off Highway 24 in Orinda, June 13-27 and July 21-26. Call (510) 548-9666.

"There are productions that the French do where you couldn't find the comedy with a flashlight," Scapin director Lillian Garret-Groag reported in the California Shakespeare Festival's newsletter. Too true. French, Greek, or Polish, comedies are the most difficult plays to revive -- dated with references or steeped in cultural tics, comedy often defies translation. Garret-Groag accomplishes a minor miracle in staging a successful Scapin. The 17th-century Moliere comedy has enough rogue goofiness to get by, but it wouldn't be worth the price of admission if not for the improvisation and comic license planted by Garret-Groag.

In this unique Scapin developed out of a buoyant cast, an 18th-century translation, and the original French script, Garret-Groag lets the performers -- not the flimsy plot -- drive the show. The story is textbook romance. While their wealthy fathers are off at sea, two Neapolitan pals fall in love with the wrong girls and hire the rapscallion Scapin to get them out of their looming arranged marriages. Mayhem ensues, the fathers are duped, Scapin is caught, but in the end it turns out the ditsy dames are really long-lost daughters and the true intended of the boys. Banquets, happy endings, Scapin is absolved of his various crimes.

Costumed like a pirate of the Caribbean, Joe Vincent plays a restrained Scapin; he's the least exaggerated persona, content to prey on the absurdity of others. His first challenge is Silvestro, an academic fop. The whiny trust-funder fancies himself an educated boy but can't get his vocabulary straight. He's in armoire -- uh, amour -- with Swiss Miss maid Giacinta, and contracts Scapin to free him from his betrothed. Decked in powder blue and lace, Giacinta's lispy declarations of "twue wuv" make it extremely satisfying when Gypsy bad-girl Zerbinetta starts knocking her around.

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