Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Dead End"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Heleni Thayre

"Dead End"

Reviewed by Heleni Thayre

Nicholas Martin has begun his tenure with a Splash! He has successfully undertaken the challenge of turning the orchestra pit of the Huntington Theater into a replica of East River and has assembled the biggest cast ever on its stage for a revival of the 1930s show "Dead End", a show rarely mounted due to its size and expense.

The set cleverly juxtaposes the rich and poor in 1930s New York City. Playwright Sidney Kingsley uses the device of a water-main break at the front door of a luxury high-rise to force its well-heeled inhabitants through the back door, where the building is cheek by jowl with tenements. (Though this seems a bit improbable it actually reflects true conditions in New York at that time, when the city's most luxurious residence, River House, was set down in the midst of tenements on the East River.) As they come and go on their way to shopping excursions and the opera, these affluent men and women remain oddly oblivious to the grinding poverty of the neighborhood through which they are temporarily passing. They seem scarcely to register even the danger that is always just beneath the surface of the squalor and misery --- a danger which erupts more than once in a way that would create reasonable fear in a less heedless and self-absorbed crowd.

A group of young boys just coming of age hang out in this back alley roughhousing and making life decisions that keep them ever hovering on the verge of crime. An alumnus of these same slums, "Baby-face" Martin (Dominic Fumusa), returns flashing money he has made through larceny and murder. Bullying and betrayal are the coin of the realm, though we find strength here too, and hope and even potential.

"Gimpty" (Jon Patrick Walker), a childhood pal of "Baby-face", has put himself through college and become an architect --- albeit an unemployed one. Tommy (Charlie Day), the ringleader of the gang in the alley is a kid full of many good impulses even though he succumbs to other less good. He keeps the guys in line with a combination of toughness and moxie and an underlying sense of what is right and wrong. (By today's standards, this "gang" seems innocent.) Drina (Kathryn Hahn), Tommy's sister, by far the feistiest of all, is a young woman committed to getting herself and her brother out of poverty and filth and away from a criminal destiny.

Inexorably though, we see the environment begin to claim its own, and to understand why the play deserves its title. Yet somehow despite its poignant message this production fails to touch the heart. There is no denying that the story becomes grim and its outlook grimmer. But you can still walk out of the theatre laughing and chatting about something else, not even surreptitiously wiping a tear from your cheek. How is it that a person can watch such a dead-end tale without shedding a tear? Is it that there is a sense of detachment from the action on stage? Is it because the play is rather stylized due to its date --- or to the activities of contemporary censors, who were horrified at its grittiness when it was first presented? Or because the rich are so detached from the poor? Or is it because only a few characters engage our sympathies: Gimpty, Gimpty's "girlfriend" Kay, Tommy, and Drina. And only Drina engages us fully with her humanity and passion. Oh, I almost forgot Baby-face Martin's mother (Nancy E. Carroll) --- she engages us --- she's riveting. His ex-girlfriend, now a prostitute (Amy van Nostrand) engages us as well, though her appearance is brief. But most of the people on stage seem to be in some sense hollow: the rich because they are presented as such, the poor because they are mostly so desensitized that they cannot see beyond the meaness that surrounds them, even Gimpty to some extent because life in the slums has hollowed him out. While Kay (Jennifer Van Dyck) is perfect as an elegant and caring woman who has escaped the slums and is now living in the high-rise, she is resolved to stay away from that life with all of her ability. So despite her feelings for Gimpty, she has made a conscious decision to stay detached.

The Huntington must be congratulated on its extraordinary efforts and accomplishments as regards set, costumes, cast size and professionalism. Ms. van Dyck's costumes were particularly beautiful. This is a theatre which is a genuine treasure to the city of Boston. But as Kay says to Gimpty, "We can't always have everything we want." This play and production give us ample food for thought, but little nourishment for the heart. As the play tumbles toward its close we begin to believe --- and fear --- that we can see the working of predestiny

Heleni Thayre
September 24, 2000

"Dead End" (till 15 October)
264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide