Two eminent theater companies - New York's Circle Repertory and Chicago's Steppenwolf - have collaborated on a revival of Lanford Wilson's ''Balm in Gilead'' that can be justly termed definitive. First produced Off Off Broadway in 1965, this sprawling work quivers with the frenetic desperation of its semiunderworld denizens. Even in an era of liberation and license, ''Balm in Gilead'' may alienate spectators unprepared for its explicitness and raw milieu.
Mr. Wilson is now a well-established, prizewinning dramatist with such works as ''The Hot L Baltimore,'' ''Talley's Folly,'' and ''Fifth of July'' to his credit. The subjective attitude that connects these very different later plays to Mr. Wilson's first full-length theater piece is an implicit concern for the human condition. However down and out and disreputable the social castoffs of ''Balm in Gilead'' may be, the playwright still regards them as human beings. If it were not so, the garish theater piece would be mere sensationalism.
While the time of the action has now been updated to 1972, the irony of the title remains that there is no balm in this Manhattan Gilead. There is instead the vulnerable companionship of outcasts, destructive delusion of drugs, and pursuit of sordid pleasures. The play's realistic setting (by Kevin Rigdon) is a coffee shop in the lower depths of Upper Broadway - an oasis for its contentious patrons, an urban way station that may be slept in but is never swept out, an all-night spot whose managers must also serves as bouncers.
Mr. Wilson is primarily interested in atmosphere and characters (drifters, derelicts, prostitutes of both sexes, addicts and pushers). At the same time, ''Balm in Gilead'' contains an incidental plot concerning Darlene (Laurie Metcalf), a naive young hooker from Chicago, and Joe (Danton Stone), a drug pusher who falls fatally behind in his payments.
''Balm in Gilead'' is in some respects a verbal folk opera with set pieces for arias recited by several of its 29 characters. The most accomplished of these is Darlene's prolonged monologue, with digressions, describing how she left Chicago and came to New York. As delivered by Miss Metcalf, it begins comically and ends in heart-breaking poignancy. Among others, James Pickens Jr. embroiders an amusing irrelevance about the difference in New Yorkers' and Chicagoans' attitudes toward umbrellas. A freaked-out Dopey (Gary Sinise) expounds the survivability of cockroaches.
Mr. Sinise also serves as narrator, commentator, and all-around Greek chorus of ''Balm in Gilead.'' Dopey is the production's chief reference point to the 1960s. He and his pals even good-naturedly hassle the patrons from time to time , a quaint reminder of the era when actors fraternized with audiences. Mr. Sinise conducts a round sung by a derelicts' quintet and guides Mr. Rigdon's intricate light plot with gestures that call for a fully lit stage or isolating spots on individual characters.
Whatever the device, the continuous aim of John Malkovich's brilliant staging is the illumination of character. Whether creating a stylized triple replay of Joe's murder or orchestrating the chaos of the Halloween climax, Mr. Malkovich proves himself a director of extraordinary resource and invention. (That he is currently giving a superb performance of Biff in the Broadway revival of ''Death of a Salesman'' confirms the range of a formidable talent.)
For the Circle Rep-Steppenwolf collaboration, Mr. Malkovich devised a sound design using music by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Ricky Lee Jones. The costumes, from transvestite drag to rags and tatters, are by Glenne Headley, an important member of the ''Balm in Gilead'' cast.
Danny and the Deep Blue Sea
Play by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Barnet Kellman.
Notwithstanding its rough language and recurrent violence, ''Danny and the Deep Blue Sea'' could be described as soft-core realism. John Patrick Shanley's new play at the Greenwich Village Circle in the Square is subtitled: ''An Apache Dance.'' The program helpfully defines this as ''a violent dance for two people, originated by Parisian Apaches,'' who are ''gangsters or ruffians.''
Since the long-titled, short work (three scenes without intermission) takes place in the Bronx, the alienated Shanley characters can be taken as Bronx Apaches. Their aggressions bristling, Roberta (June Stein) and Danny (John Turturro) perform their first verbal pas de deux in a gloomy bar. Danny is a belligerent bruiser who fears he may have killed a man in his latest brawl. Roberta is guilt-haunted by an incestuous incident involving her father. As the night wanes, the lonely pair discover a romantic tenderness that transforms their lives and induces at least a degree a maturity.
Or so Mr. Shanley would have the spectator believe. The dialogue unfolds in an authentic flow that reflects the author's familiarity with the street jargon of his native Bronx. Under Barnet Kellman's direction, Miss Stein and Mr. Turturro act with an intensity and concentration that endow this offbeat romance with at least a surface credibility.
The action possesses the spontaneity of an impromptu. In some respects it resembles a workshop improvisation that developed into a play rather than a script that received its professional premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. For all of its groping eloquence, psychological probings, and wry comic touches, ''Danny and the Deep Blue Sea'' winds up being less than five fathoms deep. It's clever in a sentimental and predictable way.
David Gropman's minimal settings feature a bronzelike abstract wall sturdy enough to take occasional poundings by these Bronx Apaches. The production was appropriately lighted by Richard Nelson and costumed by Marcia Dixcy.