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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The cast is new and the set is so stunning the audience applauded when the curtain went up on each act. And what a curtain! It's the New York skyline that becomes transparent when the lights go on behind it. Tenements and the elegant East River Apartments tower side by side 48 feet above the stage. The orchestra pit has been transformed into the East River and the water that fills it splashes the first row audience.
The production has retained the three act structure plays had in 1935 when Sidney Kingsley wrote it. Kingsley had two hits on Broadway before he was 30, beginning with the Pulitzer Prize winning Men in White in 1933. Ritchie may have been methodical in launching his regime with a tried and true production but it was pure synchronicity that caused the disaster of Hurricane Katrina to bombard TV sets with impoverished survivors whose plight is contrasted by pundits with those who could afford to get away. . It's sad that 70 years later this play is as topical as the day it was written.
Young theatergoers will identify with the feral vitality of the Dead End Kids just as much as older audiences who remember the Dead End Kids movies featuringthe original Broadway cast. The Kids, who eventually became the Bowery Boys, open and close the show and take pride of place in the curtain call, charging down to the middle of the stage to elbow the grown-up actors aside. Kingsley's script gives each a distinctive personality and memorable lines like "I got a hair on my chest."
Gimpty (Tom Everett Scott), a crippled young architect, sits by the river sketching, commenting and trying to be a good influence. But a dark angel appears in the form of "Baby Face" Martin (Jeremy Sisto), Gimpty's childhood hero who went to reform school early and came out to rob and kill his way across a swath of states. Now he's got a new "plastic" face and has come home to show it to his mother (Joyce Van Patten) and his first love Francey (Pamela Gray). Populating Gimpty's dreams, there's the beauteous person of Kay (Sarah Hudnut), mistress of a lawyer in the high rise.
Though melodramatic, the story strikes a keen balance between Baby Face's homecoming and ultimate tragedy and its effect on Gimpty and the Kids. All are woven together when Tommy, the leader of the kids (Ricky Ullman), becomes reform school bound, Kay leaves Gimpty and the reward on the gangster's head becomes irresistible.
Martin introduces some touches that were not in the play or the movie, such as the uncontrollable embrace between Baby Face and his mother. He also peoples the set with residents who sit in the windows, crawl out on the fire escapes to sleep on mattresses on scorching nights or, elegantly dressed, stroll out of the East River Apartments to return casually dangling shopping bags with expensive labels, impervious to the poverty at their back doorstep. With Baby Face haunting the back of the set throughout the first two acts, he becomes both a symbol and an omen.
There are no losers in this vibrant ensemble. Sisto holds the stage with vulnerable ferocity. Scott has a strength that overcomes his character's frailty. Director Martin's women are strong. Kathryn Hahn bristles with anger as Tommy's sister Drina. Pamela Gray, as Baby Face's first love Francey, now a disease-ridden prostitute, evokes traces of the fiery woman that made her unforgettable. Joyce Van Patten as the gangster's mother is a hulk of unforgiving love and pain.
The play still works. And this production knows how to work it.
Editor's note: You might want to read our review of the play at Williamstown Theatre Festival which includes a lot of background information about the play -- the review.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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