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Theatre in Review: Dead End (Axis Theatre)

Brian Barnhart, Lynn Mancinelli. Photo: Pavel Antonov

Strange how a forgotten work, by a forgotten playwright, can have so many cultural repercussions: Dead End, by Sidney Kingsley, was a blockbuster hit in its day, occupying the Belasco Theatre for 687 performances from October 1935 to June 1937. Brooks Atkinson concluded his rave Times review by saying, "When the Pulitzer judges gave Mr. Kingsley a prize for Men in White [in 1933], they picked a first-rate man."

Naturally, a film followed, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, with Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney, and Joel McCrea in the leads. Nobody could have predicted what happened next, however: The actors Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and Billy Halop, who were prominent members of Dead End's chorus of street urchins, got themselves branded the Dead End Kids and moved to Warner Brothers, where they appeared in such gangster melodramas as Angels with Dirty Faces and The Angels Wash Their Faces. Over the next twenty years, the Dead End Kids -- their membership constantly evolving -- went first to Universal, where they were known as the Little Tough Guys, and then on (and downward) to Monogram Pictures, where they were renamed the East Side Kids and, later, the Bowery Boys. Somewhere along the way, the rat-a-tat of machine guns gave way to lowbrow gags and jerry-rigged plots. The titles tell all: Ghost Chasers, Bowery to Baghdad, and Dig That Uranium.

I bring all this up by way of noting that, even in Kingsley's long lifetime -- he died in 1995 -- his work was either forgotten or put through the cultural meat grinder, ending up in unrecognizable form. And no wonder: A souvenir of the days when few Broadway producers balked at a script that required roughly forty speaking roles -- no doubling, mind you -- and an elaborate, hyperrealistic scenic design, Dead End has had only two major revivals -- at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1997 and the Ahmanson Theatre in 2005, both of them designed by James Noone. I don't know about the former, but the latter included a ten-thousand-gallon water tank.

That's because Dead End is set on the East Side of Manhattan, where a slum street abuts a posh apartment house that comes complete with its own slip for yachts. In true 1930s style, there are legions of minor characters who come and go, creating a naturalistic hustle and bustle, with the main stories emerging from the crowd. Kingsley delivers an X-ray of Manhattan's social structure, in which rich and poor occupy the same breathing space; the air is toxic, breeding indifference in the former and corruption in the latter. And, in true Six Degrees of Separation fashion, everyone is entangled. Gimpty, a lame, unemployed architect, yearns after Kay, who, because a girl must eat, has become the mistress of the rich, idle Phillip. Philips gets beaten up and robbed by a gang of (Dead End) kids led by Tommy, who is soon ducking the cops. Drina, Tommy's sister, worries about her brother even as she nurses the shiner she got on the picket line; she also wishes Gimpty would give her a tumble. Then Baby Face Martin, once Gimpty's classmate and now a public enemy, slithers in, hoping to see his mother -- Why are film and stage gangsters always inordinately devoted to their mothers? -- and also to look up Francey, the girl he left behind, who is now a streetwalker with a medical problem that's bad for business, if you know what I mean.

It's a lot of plot to handle, even more so in Randy Sharp's production -- a staging that I'm guessing would have left Kingsley aghast -- because the number of roles has been cut from forty-two to fourteen; all of the minor business -- the play's texture -- has been stripped away. The action unfolds on a nearly bare set, by Chad Yarborough, with stark, expressionistic lighting by David Zeffren. Its attempt at boiling down the play's conflicts to a concentrated form is a strategy that backfires, leaving us with wall-to-wall confrontations, each one played at a more feverish pitch than its predecessor. The actors leap head-first into these scenes, striking poses, sneering, and delivering their lines directly through their adenoids; the portrayals are so broadly stylized that one wonders if they haven't been watching reruns of the old Carol Burnett Show. This is especially true of the street kids, each of whom has been encouraged to scream his lines, which mostly consist of variations on "Shaddup, or I'm going punch your face in!" One of them, who says he has TB, specializes in a racking cough that quickly gets on one's nerves. (I'll draw a veil over the scene in which he brings up a handful of bloody phlegm.)

Instead of turbocharging Kingsley's script, the effect is to sabotage it, making it seem ripe for parody. The central point, about the vast gulf between the city's rich and poor, still holds today, of course, but the characters have been reduced to two-dimensional figures in a mural, a series of stock types from a highlight reel of 1930s pulp melodramas.

There are a few standouts: George Demas is touching as Gimpty and Shira Averbuch is convincingly exhausted by worry and strife as Drina. Brian Barnhart, as Baby Face, has an effectively sad little scene with Katie Rose Summerfield as Francey, who won't kiss him because she has a sore on her mouth and doesn't want to infect him. Everybody else goes way over the top.

Yarborough's set, dominated by a series of thick pillars, effectively suggests an East River dock, and Zeffren's lighting creates a consistently alluring film noir atmosphere. Karl Ruckdeschel's costumes are reasonably suggestive of the period, but there are some very odd touches; for some reason, the kids sport bizarre headwear that looks like vintage aviator caps, and their cheeks are made-up with spots of rouge, a choice for which I have no explanation. The original music, by Paul Carbonara, sets the right mood of dream and churning conflict.

Overall, this subtractive approach to a sprawling period piece yields small dividends. Whether Dead End is a dramatically viable work for modern audiences is a question for another day. This production aims for drama and bold theatricality, but what it delivers is hysteria. -- David Barbour


(4 May 2017)

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