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As usual the 29th St. Rep's latest play, Avenue A, is not light entertainment. Even before the action begins, the nervous and insistent beat of Will Pitts' music sets us up for the tense hour and forty minutes to come.
Two of its four characters are manic enough to bring discomforting reminders of recent headlines about random acts of violence. Joey (Thomas Wehrle) spits and screams at the closet where he has collected garden tools and seeds. His constant listmaking is obviously as much his way of controlling the mental chaos always just beneath the boiling point as any sensible planning to realize his dream of taking care of his girl friend and his brother.
Larry (David Mogentale) with his neat sideburns and suit and tie, a friend from prison who arrives unannounced and mysteriously, at first seems more threatening but more in control. When in one truly mesmerizing scene he rolls up his tie and stuffs it into his mouth to keep himself from exploding into wild rage, it becomes terrifyingly clear that his veneer of normalcy is also thin as a layer of onion skin.
The plot of David Steen's unremittingly grim but tense and often gripping play revolves around the scene-by-scene revelations about the experiences that have turned these men into two of life's incorrigible losers. In the end the circumstances bringing them together again leads to a horrendous climax. The only glimmer of hope for survival in a world of urban decay and poverty, comes from the two other characters -- Joe's girlfriend Rosa (Moira MacDonald) and his crippled brother Chickie (Patrick Burchill). Rosa, a little sparrow of a girl, is desperate to make a life away from the large Italian family headed by an abusive father. She has put up with Joey's "quirks" but when his prison pal Larry arrives in the grungy apartment where the action unfolds she is caught between saving her relationship with Joe and her fragile hold on normalcy. Chickie who seems totally dominated by his jailbird brother, turns out to be the member of this quartet of misfits with the strongest survival skills.
Unlike Pig, one of the first plays about the frustration and dysfunction of bottom-of-the-heap types, this drama is unrelieved by humor to help unclench your teeth and your fist. Nor is it as strong as the outstanding Vietnam war drama, Tracers, or as absorbingly off-beat Bobby Supreme. Like all these productions, Avenue A is blessed with superb performances.
David Mogentale, who appeared in all as well as a 1994 production of Killer Joe, continues to display an extraordinary ability to be chillingly charismatic. Someone uptown ought to take a careful look at this dynamic actor the next time a play like Iceman Cometh is cast (he would have been a fantastic Hickey). Mogentale's knockout performance does not diminish the achievement of his fellow actors, two of whom also appeared in previous 29th St. Rep productions. Each is a star. And with Jim Holmes ably steering them through their revelations and confrontations, they make for a tightly knit ensemble.
If there were an award for the best depiction of the sort of grungy inner city walk-up that is more fortress than home, Philip Baitch's set would have a good chance to win hands down. The rips in the couch, the Mr.Clean defying smudges on the wall and six-lock front door are grunge at its grungiest. The small upstairs venue has sufficiently limited amenities to make the play almost site specific.
If you're looking for strong theater and topnotch acting, you'll forget the absence of chandeliers and fancy rest rooms. The company's ticket prices remain an affordable $15 (TDF vouchers accepted) and whatever you want them to be on Pay-As-You-Want-Thursdays.
LINKS to other 29th St. Rep productions reviewed by CurtainUp