Gompers is an interesting place to visit for a couple of hours, but you wouldn't want to live there. A bleak, seen-better-days home for folks near hitting bottom, Gompers is the fictional setting for Adam Rapp's new play of the same name, currently being presented at the City Theatre. Some characteristics will sound familiar to locals: the steel mills have closed, people are out of work and they hang onto the hope that the arrival of river gambling (fill in "new stadium," "new convention center," Lord & Taylor) will bring jobs and a chance for a decent life. But most of the citizens we see in this play don't really have much hope. Due to circumstances, both of their own creation and beyond their control, it's pretty clear that most of these people aren't going to go anywhere - including making it to the end of the play.
Adam Rapp is a very prolific young writer (Faster, Nocturne and Blackbird Off Broadway). His plays are not light and cheery, but they are not without humor. It's not always the laugh-out-loud kind of humor, but more poignant and real. In Gompers, we find more overt humor than ever, particularly in two scenes which are written like straight out comedy. This mix-in of humor amidst the tragedy lifts the gloomy aura only temporarily, but adds more realism as it is human nature to find humor in even the most dire of circumstances.
With a cast of 10 characters, each of whom has at least two scenes, there is an assortment of misfortunes to be found. All but one of the characters live in the same decrepit apartment building. Dent (Danny Mastrogiorgio, who replaced Jason Antoon in Broadway's Contact) is the super, and he carries out criminal odd jobs for an unseen character, Apache. Nolan (Jeffrey Carpenter) is Dent's cohort and he's having an identity crisis which has manifested itself in a little self-injury. Part of his distress is his relationship with Shoe (Kiff Vanden Heuvel), the doorman per se. Molly (Molly Simpson) is a teenager who is trapped; she is caught between the idea of growing up in this environment and getting away. Molly's mother, Mrs. George (Robin Walsh), is losing her battle to stay sober, as well as competing with her daughter for Dent's attention. Stromile (Demond Robertson) is a strong young man with the responsibility of caring for Carlos (Anthony Rapp), who is dying of AIDS. White Steve (John Magaro) is a street-talking 14-year-old runaway who will steal and sell most anything to get by. Finn (renowned Pittsburgh actor Bingo O'Malley) is an elderly retired Army officer who has lost touch with reality. Overseeing the neighborhood with sympathy is an unnamed police officer (Garbie Dukes).
It's easy to keep track of the characters, as they are individually introduced then interact with each other in several scenes, all within the creative set provided by David Korins. The two-level set shows a dollhouse cutaway view of four of the apartments as well as two river's edge locations, one that is like a ledge and one which is the central setting of a bench on the street. Like the characters and situations in Gompers, all of the wall and ceiling lines are off center. This well designed set doesn't just decorate - it is an integral part of the presentation of the stories of the characters, and it makes excellent use of the modest stage space in the City's mainstage theater.
Besides some intermingling of the characters, two items bring a common bond to these apartment dwellers: a "purple Jesus" apparition seen on the river (feared to be a source of bad luck, to say the least) and a mysterious item Dent keeps in a box in his apartment. Everyone is fascinated by this item, and just viewing the box's glowing contents brings a rare moment of pleasure. Are these items symbols of fate and hope? I'm not really sure and, honestly, Rapp's storytelling is most compelling when it is literal and real. He doesn't really need such overt metaphors to be effective.
This production is rich in real, gutsy performances. Each of the ten actors perform their roles with full dedication and skill. Standouts include Danny Mastrogiorgio, for whom the role of Dent was written. He inhabits the character with a natural ease. A play centering on this character would be a very interesting prospect. Molly Simpson, as Molly, also creates a very real character. On the verge of adulthood, she projects the kinds of turmoil we all know youth can bring - and doesn't overplay the added turmoils of her unfortunate environment. Most memorable in last year's Playhouse production of A New Brain as Mister Bungee, John Magaro excels as a young teen who is living in his own little world on the street. Anthony Rapp brings an engaging quality to the character of Carlos; though we see little of him (although he is always on stage, lying in his bed), this character piques our interest enough to wish more of his backstory were presented. Bingo O'Malley delivers a sterling performance as the delusional Finn, and is, as always, a joy to watch.
Direction by Tracy Brigden is nimbly integrated with the set and does its part in presenting the characters in a proficient manner.
In 2002 the City premiered Rapp's stunning Blackbird, which is now in an acclaimed run Off Broadway. Also a dark story of a most dismal situation, Blackbird shows the lives of only two characters. With fewer characters, Rapp showed how well he can use language and the most gritty of real life situations to fully develop his characters. Such complete development is difficult with the many characters of Gompers, though, with excellent actors, it is possible to get a handle on the basic needs and intents of the characters.
Gompers continues at the City Theatre Company through May 30. For performance and ticket information, call (412) 431-2489 or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.