Dead End: Happy Endings But Only in the Movies
It opens with a wondrous photo like image. A black and white tableau with a strong sense of old time New York City or at least the Hollywood version of the city. Chad Yarborough, the set designer, made surprisingly good use of the small basement space of the Axis Theatre Company. Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, a play rich in its own history, takes us back to the 1930’s period when NYC was suffering huge inequalities in its social order. The scene before us is of the wealthy on one side of the stage, dressed in tailored suits and cocktail dresses, courtesy of the simplistic detailed costumes by Karl Ruckdeschel. We soon discover that stage right represents the land of the rich, living in a fancy building, forced by construction to use the back door of their luxury accommodations. Out back in the dead end alley, stage left, are the much less fortunate, who loiter; watching and taunting the upper class with disgust mixed with envy in every vulgarity thrown. The disparity is bleak, sad, and through this play, we get a glimpse into the hearts and souls of the desperate.
Hanging out on a symbolic pile of blocks representing an East Side wharf is a gang of boys played with a surprising depth and awkward exaggeration by three talented young women (Emily Kratter as Milty, Regina Betancourt as Spit, Lynn Mancinelli as Angel) and one young male, Jon McCormick, as their leader, Tommy. It’s difficult at first to adjust to their antics, as it is in no way trying to be realistic, but the abstract speaks volumes about these boys and their situation, and eventually it crawls under your skin. Trying to keep an eye on the young lad, is Drina, a working-class girl, well played by Shira Averbuch, who has tried her best to keep her younger brother, Tommy out of trouble since their parents died. She also has her touch of hopeful romanticism secreted away under her worn exterior.
The four rascals, paying little attention to Drina, find themselves getting in all sorts of trouble with the rich folk that come their way, especially the wealthy older Mr. Griswald (Spencer Aste). The ‘kids’ do an admirable job playing these foul-mouthed tough guys that hang around the alleyways causing mischief. Milling around them, is the down on his luck architect, Gimpty, played with a tender edge by George Demas and the girl, Kay portrayed effortlessly by Britt Genelin. What transpires between this two is completely engaging and sweet. Gimpty struggles with unemployment but dreams of rebuilding his neighborhood and rising out of poverty. Having been a gang member in his youth, he has managed to finish high school and go on to college, but hardships have forced him down into deep poverty and hopelessness. Kay wants to love and be with him, but sees a brighter future with the handsome young rich guy, Phillip Griswald, meticulously played by Jake Murphy. There longing for each other has a tender yearning quality that resonates across the theatre, both in its care and in its destruction.
Appearing out of thin air, disguised with the help of ‘plastics’, is one of Gimpty’s old gang member buddies, Baby Face Martin who is running from the police for a series of brutal murders. Brian Barnhart plays him with a heightened sense of mischief and trouble, that even his mother, Mrs. Martin (Laurie Kilmartin) has difficulty dealing with (Humphrey Bogart played Baby Face in the film version). But even the dangerous killer has a soft romantic spot for an old flame, the complicated hooker, Francey, played by the wonderful Katie Rose Summerfield, the object of his desire. There is a tender moment that feels like it’s right out of an old gangster movie that inevitably goes sour at the end. This is the way that love goes in the Dead End, not surprisingly. There are no happy endings for anyone here, just an endless parade to lovelessness and poverty. It is literally the Dead End for these young characters, with no way out; an idea that resonates beyond the confines of this period piece into our world of the disenfranchised.
As directed by Randy Sharp, these actors are all exaggerations of the model, playing with the stereotype and pulling it wide open as far as they can. It’s a fascinating concept that she expands through the whole piece, taking this old-time play and expanding it in all different directions, bringing in extreme moody lighting by David Zeffren, creative original music by Paul Carbonara, abstract movement, and the creative use of background singing, odd line reading, repetitive words said out of context, and sounds on top of sounds without any logic. In general, the ploy works well, keeping us entertained and engaged. It’s a bit abstract at times, but in a manner that one can get behind.
Interestingly enough, the band of rascals, when depicted in the 1937 movie version of Dead End, which ran for 684 performances at the Belasco Theatre, became the famous ‘Dead End Kids‘. They proved to be so popular with the public that they continued to make movies under various titles including the ‘Little Tough Guys‘, the ‘East Side Kids‘, and the ‘Bowery Boys‘, until 1958. Some of the famous names that were connected to the ‘Dead End Kids‘ at Warner Brothers, included James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, and Ronald Reagan. Not such a terrible ending for all those connected to this play and for these actors. Happy endings do exist, but only in the movies.