The curtain rises on a street scene. Broken down tenements line the street, with the incongruous placement of an elegant and posh apartment building right next door. As the music (a perfect accompaniment composed by Mark Bennett) fades, the sounds of the street come alive: chatter, yelling, kids playing and joking around and diving into the water. You can't make out everything everyone is saying, but the tempo itself rings true. Director Nicholas Martin is to be commended for recreating on the stage the hubbub of life.
But it's in these little snippets of noise and activity that Dead End is really at its best. The play, written in 1935 and taking place in 1931, is about the class divide and the despair of life caught in the inescapable cycle of poverty. In its (surprisingly brisk) two-and-a-half hour running time, Dead End encompasses such plot points as: drunk and abusive parents; siblings raising each other without parents; lack of proper medical care; women who turn to prostitution; women who turn to rich men; a kid who somehow managed to get an education and a career, only to find no work because of the Depression; a clueless rich kid who taunts the poor kids; a nerdy kid who wants to join up with the poor kids; the struggle to be paid a fair wage; the lengths to which desperate people will go to survive; the corruption of the police; and the consequences of a momentary unthinking act. Oh, and a mobster running from the law. In its attempt to cover all of these topics, Dead End doesn't really address any of them any more than superficially. Most get a single scene or quick nod; characters are frequently stereotypes - some comically so.
But it's not just the plot points that are cliched; the dialogue itself is, at times, almost groan-inducingly trite. Girl: "He really loves me." Boy: "He's got a funny way of showing it." There's tons of it. Girl: "The sky was full o' stars, and I was full o' dreamy ideas." It probably did not play this way in 1935, but seventy years later, it's hard to be really moved by this stuff. Indeed, in one scene, a very serious line generated audience laughter because the language itself is now considered over-the-top.
Although the datedness of the script puts some limit on exactly how emotionally involved the audience can get, the uneven cast doesn't help matters. Tom Everett Scott plays Gimpty, the college-educated architect who has returned to the neighborhood of his youth because work has dried up. There's a feeling that Gimpty is supposed to be the protagonist of the piece - he's the one in love with the unattainable girl, and he's also educated enough to speak eloquently to the empowered on behalf of the poor. But Scott doesn't give a particularly engaging performance. He frequently mumbles his lines, his New York accent comes and goes, and he does little to earn the audience's sympathy - in a role that should be an easy pathos-grabber.
Without Gimpty to stir our minds and break our hearts, the audience turns to the other character who got out and then returned to the old neighborhood, Baby-Face Martin. Baby-Face made his fortune in crime ("I got mine," he says, "but I took it.") and has come back to visit his mother and his old girlfriend. Jeremy Sisto gives a surprisingly touching performance in the scenes where Baby-Face learns you can't go home again. (At one point, he is given a long time to react in silence to what he's told, and Sisto uses it beautifully.) He's less successful with Baby-Face's other scenes. A quick-tempered mobster, Baby-Face frequently turns to violence as the first resort, and Sisto's outbursts aren't always plausible.
Some of the really good work in this show is done by Kathryn Hahn, whose portrayal of Drina, the girl trying to raise her brother alone, seems to get better and better in each successive scene. Ricky Ullman as her brother Tommy also steadily improves as Tommy begins to stand out among the other street kids as the one whose actions today will determine the rest of his life.
Sadly, it is impossible to say that the class divide of seventy years ago is no longer with us. But the biggest problem with Dead End as a piece of social commentary now is that it's seventy years old. Its street gangs who go after each other with fists and sticks are nothing compared to the drug-dealing drive-by shooters of today. Because of this, we tend to look at the impoverished kids of Dead End not so much as frightening youths who have been forced into crime by poverty, but as almost sweet sepia-tinged reminders of the past. The program notes describe the original Dead End Kids as "nearly feral," but the Dead End Kids on stage at the Ahmanson are downright harmless by today's standards. These are kids who gasp in shock when one of them says "Fuck you" to an adult. The result is a production that says less about the problems of intractable poverty than do the devastating pictures we're getting nightly from New Orleans.
Michael Ritchie's program notes say he views Dead End as a "celebration of theatre itself and everything the medium can do." For today's audiences, I think theatre can do a lot more.
Center Theatre Group - Michael Ritchie, Artistic Director; Charles Dillingham, Managing Director; Gorden Davidson, Founding Artistic Director - presents Dead End by Sidney Kingsley. Set Design by James Noone; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Kurt Kellenberger; Music Composed by Mark Bennett; Fight Direction by Rick Sordelet; Wigs by Rick Geyer; Casting by Amy Lieberman, CSA, and Erika Sellin; Associate Producer Kelley Kirkpatrick; Production Stage Manager Grayson Meritt; Stage Managers James T. McDermott, Elizabeth Atkinson. Directed by Nicholas Martin.
Dead End runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through October 16, 2005. For tickets and information, see www.centertheatregroup.org.
* Member of Actors Equity Association
Photo by Craig Schwartz