The Boston Phoenix
September 21 - 28, 2000

[Dance Reviews]

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Crowning Kingsley

Dead End gets the royal treatment

by Carolyn Clay

DEAD END, by Sidney Kingsley. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Music composed by Mark Bennett. Set design by James Noone. Costumes by Michael Krass. Lighting by Kenneth Posner. Sound by Kurt B. Kellenberger. Fight director Rick Sordelet. With Jon Patrick Walker, Lucas Papaelias, Charlie Day, Keith Elijah, Rollin Carlson, Dennis Staroselsky, George Pendleton III, William Young, Dominic Fumusa, Diego Arciniegas, Matthew Bretschneider, Bobbie Steinbach, Jack Ferver, Kathryn Hahn, Will Lyman, Jennifer Van Dyck, Bill Mootos, Nancy E. Carroll, Rod McLachlan, Amy Van Nostrand, and others. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre through October 8.

Dead End is an ironic name for a beginning. But this epic production of Sidney Kingsley's famed Depression-era melodrama, which brings director Nicholas Martin swimming to town on the fetid currents of New York's East River, represents a new dawn for the Huntington Theatre Company. Certainly Martin, who inaugurates his tenure as the Huntington's artistic director with this re-creation of his memorable 1997 Williamstown Theatre Festival staging of the long-neglected Dead End, cannot be accused of not making a splash. Audience members in the front rows must imagine, as the Dead End Kids cannonball into the water-filled orchestra pit standing in for the East River, that they've wandered into the dolphin show at the New England Aquarium -- as perhaps choreographed by Clifford Odets.

But there is fire, as well as water, being kicked up here. If Martin's lively, near-operatic revival doesn't establish the lasting literary merit of Kingsley's 1935 exercise in social realism, it certainly makes a case for its continuing social relevance and crackling entertainment value. Set at the riverfront juncture where a tenement abuts a luxury apartment building, Dead End is a rich pageant of privilege living cheek by jowl with poverty as well as an urgent, visceral depiction of the urban slum as a "cradle of crime." In its time, it drew the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt and led to the passage in Congress of the Wagner Housing Bill. But though the gap between the haves and the have-nots of American society remains as ludicrously bold as it is in the play, the theater industry itself has been subject to downsizing. Serious, non-musical plays like Dead End, with its monumental set and cast of over 40, have fallen into disuse because neither the haves nor the have-nots among American theaters can afford to produce them.

Most people know Dead End from the 1937 film, which starred Humphrey Bogart as notorious gangster "Baby-face" Martin, who, lurking behind a plastic-surgical disguise, returns to the slum of his youth to visit his old ma and first girl. The film also introduced the "Dead End Kids," who as the Bowery Boys went on to make numerous films. No surprise that the stage drama too is dominated by the sextet of bathing, hustling urchins who hole up by the river because the al fresco setting and the bullying camaraderie beat hell out of foul apartments stuffed with disappointed, sometimes violent relations. In 1935, the boys' slang-ridden "gutter argot" proved shocking; by today's standards, it's almost quaint, and Martin has had to dirty it up. But under Martin's tutelage, the boys, jockeying and shoving as they pull lank bodies in and out of ragged clothes, behave, testosterone being timeless, naturally and convincingly for any era.

Charlie Day -- a veteran of the WTF production that featured Robert Sean Leonard, Campbell Scott, and Hope Davis -- is Tommy, gang leader and urban-poor all-American boy, dripping with East River slime and criminal potential. He is cared for by his tough-talking but worried-sick sister Drina, a worker out on strike. Drina torches for Gimpty, the show's soulful, presiding presence, a crippled, unemployed architect who despite six years of higher education hasn't escaped the neighborhood but spends his days sketching community housing that no one will build. He in turn torches for Kay, the mistress of a rich inhabitant of the luxury apartments who, though she loves Gimpty, is not about to trade a meal ticket for a soul mate. Gimpty's only potential source of income is the reward on the head of Baby-face, who as an old acolyte he recognizes. But though it ultimately yields up a pair of Judases, the neighborhood isn't high on snitching -- whether on federally sought murderers or friends.

The plot of Dead End is loosely woven yet explosive, a tapestry of juxtapositions and confrontations that pieces together the hoky and the devastating. At the Huntington, the cloth unfolds against James Noone's 40-foot-high brick tenement, whose fire escapes house old mattresses, empty flower pots, and silent, static dramas. Of more graceful scale is the white-stone luxury building, with its large balcony for looking down on the riff-raff. As night falls, in the third act, lighting designer Kenneth Posner infuses the windows with a golden glow. And Mark Bennett's somber, jazzy score, from the indolent horns of the opening to the funeral strain that accompanies Baby-face's mother's shuffling march toward his corpse, adds to the atmosphere.

There are no stars in this edition of Martin's production, and it hardly matters. Much has been made of the large cast's including, for the first time in Huntington history, non-imported actors and Boston University grads or students. And, yes, it is thrilling to see them up there. In particular, Nancy E. Carroll does a wrenching dead-woman-walking turn as Mrs. Martin bitterly rejecting her killer son. Among the principals, Jon Patrick Walker delivers the poet's soul, as well as the crippled gait, of Gimpty. Dominic Fumosa, looking every inch the well-turned-out gangster, shies from neither the brute cruelty nor the temporarily rekindled vulnerability of Baby-face. Kathryn Hahn is an earthy Drina, Jennifer Van Dyck an elegantly tough-minded Kay, and Amy Van Nostrand a touchingly threadbare floozie as the gangster's old girlfriend, Francey. But the star of this show is Martin, who makes the play's disparate, oft-caricatured parts add up. The production's final image, of the Dead End Kids presciently singing a prison plaint while an even smaller child looks on admiringly, drives home the play's point more sharply than all of Kingsley's well-plotted preaching.