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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Years ago my husband picked up some old brown sepia drawings in a junk shop that were done to publicize various movies . My favorite, which still hangs in the hallway of our New York apartment, is of Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea in the 1937 movie adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End . The play pre-dates my theater-going days, and my Dead End movie experience has been limited to some of the Dead End Kid/Bowery Boys B-movies that this film seeded. Now, at last, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has brought that drawing to theatrical life for me, in full color (but with that sepia feeling intact), and on a grand scale rarely seen on today's economy-driven stage.
It's the first major production since Dead End's Broadway premiere at the height of the Great Depression in 1935. Its long rest in the morgue that houses so many rarely or never produced plays is not surprising in the light of the diminishing popularity of the social realism drama created to stir audiences to a greater consciousness about significant social issues--especially if the social issues are linked to a period few people know from first-hand experience. Factor in that Dead End also calls for a cast of 44 and a highly complex and realistic set and the economic difficulties of its revival loom as high and daunting as the skyscraper that abuts the edge of the mean, dead end street where the play's action unfolds.
If directors were given report cards, Nicholas Martin (along with the WTF producer Michael Ritchie) would surely rate an A+ for recognizing this long dormant drama's relevancy and enduring power to cut through the period piece surface and reach to that core within the audience where emotion takes over; and also for having the courage to do it.
If I were filling out the rest of that report card, Mr. Martin could bring his home to mom and dad with a big smile for I'd give equally high grades for casting, steering the cast to make the most of their characters, and the spectacular staging. As you read on, you'll understand why Kingsley's sixty-year-old street-of-no-returns saga still works as entertaining, well-paced and emotionally engaging theater. You'll also recognize the contributions made by Mr. Martin's collaborators, the actors and designers.
Why the story still resonates.
At the core of the play is a gang of teenagers who make the streets and wharves of the Manhattan section near the Queensborough Bridge their home away from homes rank with dampness, poverty and often abusive fathers. Even this grim oasis--a bit of cool but filthy East River water, a stoop for playing cards, a can in which to roast potatoes--is being threatened by newly risen luxury apartments whose wealthy tenants view them as hoodlums "who ought not to be allowed in the street with decent people." Indeed, underlying their still harmless-seeming shenanigans, is the very real possibility that they will graduate from mischieveousness to gangsterism, like an older neigborhood alumni, the notorious ""Baby-Face Martin".
This predominantly Irish section which actually was called Dead End (as similar streets on the West side of town were called Hell's Kitchen), is now Sutton Place. The teenagers' lives are interlaced with several other story lines involving an idealistic young architect who provides the play's romantic interest and moral conscience and the murderous "Baby-Face Martin" who epitomizes the worst-case scenario in which you use a gun as the only way out of the dead end of poverty. Completing the mosaic of life in this figurative and literal dead end world are the residents of the luxury building at the end of the street. Because the front of their building is temporarily obstructed they must use the rear entrance and walk past the tenement dwellers to get to their cabs and limousines. The inevitable collision between these haves and have-nots has all too many counterparts in our current society. If anything, the divide is greater than ever.
Why it tugs at our hearts.
All the above sound like a lot of social rhetoric? Well, yes. Some of the young architect's (Gimpty/Robert Sean Leonard) speeches smack of speechifying. The determination of the rich man (Mr. Griswald/Lee Wilcof) to send one of the young hoodlums (Tommy/Scott Wolf) to reform school for beating up and robbing his son and cutting him with a knife leads to a predictable but moving act of heroic interference. When Tommy's sister (Drina/Hope Davis) fails to rouse the rich man's sympathy the architect steps in, spurred by the fact that his own dreams have just been shattered when the girl he loves ( (Kay/ Julie Dretzin) cynically opts for life with a millionaire. The killer's fate (Baby-Face Martin/ Campbell Scott) is also predictable. But all that aside, there's Kingsley's talent for spinning out multiple story lines and giving his characters sincere and gritty dialogue (editorial note: some of the F-word usage is most likely a bow to contemporary street language!?!) reels us in by the strings of our hearts.
The most consistently successful scenes stem from the interplay between the teenagers ( Wolf as Tommy plus Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sam Wright, Gregory Esposito, Christopher Fitzgerald, Jack J. W. Ferver) who are all swagger and bravado on the outside and desperation within. There's a scene when they roast potatoes in a steel barrel where they seem almost happy, truly harmlessly mischieveous youngsters instead of potential hoods. .
The two emotional high points of the evening come in the second act, when "Baby-Face Martin" (Campbell Scott) is briefly reunited first with his mother (Marian Seldes) and then with his former sweetheart Francey (Amy Van Nostrand). His mother recoils from him angrily and tells him "Don't come back like a bad penny." When he offers her money she spurns it with a curse. For a moment we glimpse a shadow of sadness cross his surgically camouflaged face. But when his triggerman Hunk (Bruce MacVittie) who's witnessed his humiliation says "quot;Whyn't ya slap her down?" the tough veneer is back in place and he snaps "Shut up!" In the scene with Francey the tables are turned This time "Baby-Face" recoils from the girl who's become a diseased hooker and when he hands her money, instead of spurning it, she asks him for more. Both Seldes and Van Nostrand demonstrate beautifully that in the hands of the right actress even a short appearance on stage can be remembered for a long time. Hope Davis, in the larger role of young Tommy's sister Drina also has one particularly fine moment when towards the end she calls out to her dead mother "Mama, why did you leave us? I don't know what to do." The parts of Gimpty, Tommy and "Baby-Face" are equally powerful.
There's Casting Skill and There's Assembling a Cast of 44.
Obviously the above cited high voltage Equity actors go far towards Mr. Martin's proving his casting ability. What earns him a special +, however, is his skillful blending of Equity and non Equity Actors--and creating a play in which the final achievement is one of ensemble acting. Like many Berkshire venues the WTF is very committed not just to its audience but to making an impact on the immediate and surrounding community. As is always the case with such outreach programs, everybody gains. In this case, the use of non-Equity Williamstown and nearby residents enabled Mr. Martin to assemble the full cast called for by Kingsley's script.
A star character of both the original and this new Dead End is of course the metaphoric and highly detailed set and of course, as a great fan of James Noone's set designs (see CurtainUp 's Mega Byte* Awards) I'm not in the least surprised that Mr. Noone not only met the challenge of recreating Norman Bel Geddes' (a one time super star of set design) but has surpassed it by actually managing to fill a section of the orchestra right below the stage with water. While it's a nice touch I'm not convinced it's necessary. And if having a net instead of a "real" river spelled the difference between giving people in other areas a chance to see this long neglectedplay, I'd say, give up this added bit of realism. The set's real power to function as if it were a key character begins with the scrim curtain on which a dark grim photo montage of New York is suddenly lit (by Kenneth Posner) to reveal a street teeming with life . Everything seems almost cheerful in this first sepia-like glow. Then, as your eyes take in the dark corners and the harsh details, it becomes quickly evident that the impression of lightness is false The light, like the dark skyline, has led you into a world into which little light and hope falls.
Abetting Noone and Posner's outstanding stagecraft are Michael Krass's costumes and Mark Bennett's original score. The visual and musical collaboration makes for a memorably touching closing image in which the Dead End boys sing "Now if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly--and then I'd be willing to die."
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©Copyright 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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