Photo by Craig SchwartzIn Nicholas Martins lavish staging of Dead End Sidney Kingsleys 1935 pastiche of haves and have-nots in New York slum kids (played by USC student interns) are condemned to and by poverty to leap and leap again into filthy river water (the orchestra pit transformed into a small lake), splashing the first two rows of the Ahmanson audience while the crowd roars its delight as though it were at Magic Mountain. This, the week after Americas hurricane of the century turned New Orleans into an open cesspool and so luridly exposed us to images of real poor people wading chest deep in real sewage in search of real lost relatives. Yes, I know, how could Center Theater Group artistic director Michael Ritchie, or any of us, have known that those horrors on TV would put almost any staged depiction of social Darwinism at a quaint remove? He planned this local production a year and a half ago. Besides, whats one thing got to do with another? A lot. In the theater, context is almost everything. The week after Los Angeles suffered a nerve-jangling earthquake in 1994, Bill Irwin and David Shiner opened a pantomimed clown show, Fool Moon, at the Doolittle. The clowns gleeful flippancy unleashed the audiences collective pent-up terror. The show spun and careened like a balloon purging itself of air. People were literally weeping with laughter, the healing laughter of having survived a potentially lethal catastrophe. In September 2001, City Garage, a small theater in Santa Monica, was performing a sarcastic allegory called Frederick of Prussia: George W.s Dream of Sleep. Shortly into the run, New York lost two very large towers. The little theater on the other side of the country had to close its show. Its angry theme, eviscerating the U.S. president for being asleep at the wheel, was suddenly no longer appropriate. None of this is fair, but its how theater stays in touch with a changing world. In 1935, Kingsleys East River splash, Dead End, was a 44-character play about gang kids, a Depression-era Broadway hit with a set reputed to have ignited applause every night. The production was said to have inspired myriad donations to the Boy Scouts, and to have moved Eleanor Roosevelt to establish antipoverty youth programs. William Wyler directed the 1937 movie starring Humphrey Bogart in a screenplay adaptation by Lillian Hellman. Ritchie writes that when he saw that movie on late-night TV, he understood immediately that it had been sculpted from a play, and he went looking for that play. In 1997, as head of the Williamstown Theater Festival, Ritchie hired Nicholas Martin to direct it. The New York TimesBen Brantley liked the show a lot.In 2000, Martin launched his new career as artistic director of Bostons Huntington Theater Company with a second revival of Dead End, using the same design team from his Williamstown production. On opening night, Ritchie was in the audience, taking mental notes from Martin on how to launch a career as an artistic director in a new city. At the Huntington, Martin had established a creative partnership with Boston University in order to fill the enormous cast roster. In a special one-time arrangement struck with Actors Equity, student interns played many of the younger roles. Here in L.A., Ritchie has applied the same idea for a partnership with USCs School of Theater. The actors may have changed through the years, the stages may have different proportions, but James Noones set still features applause-inducing towering brownstones lined with fire escapes and crisscrossed with two tiers of laundry lines, all looming over a curving brick alley that banks onto the river, into which college students keep diving. To picture this staging of Dead End,imagine Dylan Thomas Under Milk Wood with a social agenda to end cycles of poverty and violence a compilation of multiple stories that capture a neighborhood in this case, gentrification. The subplots swirl around the return of convicted killer-on-the-run Baby Face Martin (Jeremy Sisto) to see the two women in his life who ever meant anything to him his mother (Joyce Van Patten) and his ex, Francey (Pamela Gray). The former spits in his face and, in a moment of none-too-subtle foreshadowing, says, Leave us alone . . . an die. With inherited callousness, Martin cant forgive Francey, his first love, for being a hooker with a heart of STDs. Meanwhile, Martins impoverished school pal Gimpty (Tom Everett Scott) walks with a cane and sits scribbling his architectural blueprints for a housing project, while Gimptys secret lover, Kay (Sarah Hudnut), plans a months-long cruise with her rich boyfriend, Jack (Leo Marks), on a boat docked across the river a boat everyone looks out at, longingly, if only for its ability to carry them away. Jack may treat Kay like a rag, but shed rather live with that curse than the curse of poverty, even if it means forfeiting Gimptys obvious tenderness. Through all this, street youths run on and off, around that brick curve. They play with knives, gamble for pennies and scheme to beat up the snotty rich kid (Benjamin Platt). Local gang leader Tommy (Ricky Ullman) drives his older, caretaker sister, Drina (Kathryn Hahn), to distraction with his impetuous independence and brutality. Eventually, the rich come into direct contact with the poor (that distinction nicely visualized in Michael Krass costumes), somebody gets stabbed, somebody gets shot, somebody gets snitched on, there are a couple of emotional scenes, but almost nobody really changes, which is why the play, as drama, is so unremarkable. With apologies to Shakespeare, however, sometimes the plays not the thing. A director can reduce a classic to rubble, or elevate a mediocre script by reinventing it. We saw that on this very stage in 1996, when director Stephen Daldry transformed J.B. Priestleys pedantic potboiler, An Inspector Calls an indictment of the rich for neglecting the poor into an urban fairy tale. Daldry turned Priestleys almost laughable moralizing into an enchanting fable by using Ian MacNeils abstracted set a surreal playground with suspended locales, forced perspectives and washes of color. Suddenly, from 1945, Priestley was taking on Margaret Thatcher head-to-head in a dream, and winning.Both Brantley and Ritchie have described Dead End as gritty social realism probably because somebody curses, sympathetic women sleep around and Francey has sores in her mouth. Thats not gritty. Gritty realism in 2005 is what we just saw on TV from New Orleans.Here, director Martin doesnt so much interpret the play as merely stage it, wrapping it in Mark Bennetts original music that sounds calculated to induce emotion cinematically rather than letting it flow naturally from the play. As soon as the applause for the set dies down, the artifice starts suffocating the actors, who strain to be felt against the sheer height and texture of those brownstones. There are fine performances (Ullman, Marks, Hahn and Van Patten stand out), but theyre playing as though on a strip of sand at the base of the Grand Canyon. Were the set more open, and less literal, Martin might actually have found and visualized some of the textures beneath the text, and moved the play forward in time, rather than enshrining it in some Group Theater museum exhibit. The problem with shuffling the same theatrical concept across the country nearly 10 years later is that the country keeps changing. To be more precise, our perceptions of America have been turned inside out lately. To quote Polly Toynbee in Londons The Guardian:It is the shock of discovering that Oz is only an optical illusion and the Wizard is a small man with no magic power after all. America now looks like some fearsome robotic dinosaur stomping across the landscape, a gigantic Power Ranger toy, all bright gadgets and display but no power and nothing inside. Its Buzz Lightyear. It cant actually do anything useful after all. The difference between America of 1935 and America of 2005 is as clear as the difference between Eleanor Roosevelt and Barbara Bush two national matrons, the former starting antipoverty programs in response to a play, the latter doing a Marie Antoinette impersonation in the wake of a hurricane. Kingsleys characters had at least a remote prospect of social mobility, a prospect thats been vanquished by the social policies of the past two decades. Dead End isnt terrible, just trivial. Martin and Ritchie have had almost 10 years to fathom how to give this play the new pertinence it deserves, to reflect on the kind of callous disregard for poor Americans that would surely have made Kingsleys hair stand on end. Instead, theyre obviously content to keep doing the same show, as though its 1935. The world keeps turning. If the theater doesnt turn with it, whats it for? DEAD END | By SIDNEY KINGSLEY, directed by NICHOLAS MARTIN | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through October 16 | (213) 628-2772
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