A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Years ago my husband picked up some old brown sepia drawings in a junk shop that were
done to publicize various movies . My favorite, which still hangs in the
hallway of our New York apartment, is of Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea in the 1937 movie
adaptation of Sidney Kingsley's play Dead End . The play pre-dates my theater-going
days, and my Dead End movie experience has been limited to some of the Dead End
Kid/Bowery Boys B-movies that this film seeded. Now, at last, the Williamstown Theatre
has brought that drawing to theatrical life for me, in full color (but with that sepia feeling intact),
and on a grand scale rarely seen on today's economy-driven stage.
It's the first major production since Dead End's Broadway premiere at the height of the
Great Depression in 1935. Its long rest in the morgue that houses so many rarely or never
plays is not surprising in the light of the diminishing popularity of the social realism drama
created to stir audiences to a greater consciousness about significant social issues--especially if
the social issues are linked to a period few people know from first-hand experience. Factor in
that Dead End also calls for a cast of 44 and a highly complex and
realistic set and the economic difficulties of its revival loom as high and daunting as the
skyscraper that abuts the edge of the mean, dead end street where the play's action unfolds.
If directors were given report cards, Nicholas Martin (along with the WTF producer Michael
Ritchie) would surely rate an A+ for recognizing this long dormant drama's relevancy
and enduring power to cut through the period piece surface and reach to that core within the
audience where emotion takes over; and also for having the courage to do it.
If I were filling out the rest of that report card, Mr. Martin could bring his home to mom and dad
with a big smile for I'd give equally high grades for casting, steering the cast to make the most of
their characters, and the spectacular staging. As you read on, you'll understand why Kingsley's
sixty-year-old street-of-no-returns saga still
works as entertaining, well-paced and emotionally engaging theater. You'll also recognize the
contributions made by Mr. Martin's collaborators, the actors and designers.
Why the story still resonates.
At the core of the play is a gang of teenagers who make the
streets and wharves of the Manhattan section near the Queensborough Bridge their home
away from homes rank with dampness, poverty and often abusive fathers. Even this grim
oasis--a bit of cool but filthy East River water, a stoop for playing cards, a can in which
to roast potatoes--is being threatened by newly risen luxury apartments whose wealthy
tenants view them as hoodlums "who ought not to be allowed in the street with decent
people." Underlying their still harmless-seeming shenanigans, is the very real possibility
that they will graduate from mischieveousness to gangsterism, like an older neigborhood alumni,
the notorious ""Baby-Face Martin".
This predominantly Irish section which actually was called Dead End (as similar
streets on the West side of town were called Hell's Kitchen), is now Sutton Place.
The teenagers' lives are interlaced with several other story lines involving an idealistic young
architect who provides the play's romantic interest and moral conscience and the murderous
who epitomizes the worst-case scenario in which you use a gun as the only way out of the dead
end of poverty.
Completing the mosaic of life in this figurative and literal dead end world are
the residents of the luxury building at the end of the street. Because the front of their building is
temporarily obstructed they must use the rear entrance and walk past the tenement dwellers to get
to their cabs and limousines. The inevitable collision between these haves and have-nots has
all too many counterparts in our current society. If anything, the divide is greater than ever.
Why it tugs at our hearts.
All the above sound like a lot of social rhetoric? Well, yes.
Some of the young architect's (Gimpty/Robert Sean Leonard) speeches smack of
speechifying. The determination of the rich man (Mr. Griswald/Lee Wilcof) to send one of the
young hoodlums (Tommy/Scott
Wolf) to reform school for beating up and robbing his son and cutting him with a knife
leads to a predictable but
moving act of heroic interference. When Tommy's sister (Drina/Hope Davis) fails to rouse the
rich man's sympathy the architect steps in, spurred by the fact that his own dreams have just been
shattered when the girl he
loves ((Kay/ Julie
Dretzin) cynically opts for life with a millionaire. The
killer's fate (Baby-Face Martin/ Campbell Scott) is also predictable. But all that aside, there's
Kingsley's talent for spinning out multiple story lines and giving his characters sincere and gritty
dialogue (editorial note: some of the F-word usage is most likely a bow to contemporary street
language!?!) reels us in by the strings of our hearts.
The most consistently successful scenes stem from the interplay between the teenagers (Wolf as Tommy plus Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Sam Wright, Gregory Esposito, Christopher
Fitzgerald, Jack J. W. Ferver) who are
all swagger and bravado on the outside and desperation within.
There's a scene when they roast potatoes in a steel barrel where they seem almost happy, truly
harmlessly mischieveous youngsters instead of potential hoods.
The two emotional high points of the evening come in the second act, when "Baby-Face
Martin" (Campbell Scott) is briefly reunited first with his mother (Marian Seldes)
and then with his former sweetheart Francey (Amy Van Nostrand). His mother recoils
from him angrily and tells him "Don't come back like a bad penny." When he offers her
money she spurns it with a curse. For a moment we glimpse a shadow of sadness cross his
surgically camouflaged face. But when his triggerman Hunk (Bruce MacVittie) who's
witnessed his humiliation says "quot;Whyn't ya slap her down?" the tough veneer is back in
place and he snaps "Shut up!"
In the scene with Francey the tables are turned.
This time "Baby-Face" recoils from the girl who's become a diseased hooker and when he hands
her money, instead of spurning it, she asks him for more. Both Seldes and Van Nostrand
demonstrate beautifully that in the hands of the right actress even a short appearance on stage can
be remembered for a long time.
Hope Davis, in the larger role of young Tommy's sister Drina
also has one particularly fine moment when towards the end she calls out to her dead mother
"Mama, why did you leave us? I don't know what to do." The parts of Gimpty, Tommy and
"Baby-Face" are equally powerful.
There's Casting Skill and There's Assembling a Cast of 44.
Obviously the above cited high voltage Equity actors go far towards Mr. Martin's proving his
casting ability. What earns him a special +, however, is his skillful blending of Equity and non
Equity Actors--and creating a play in which the final achievement is one of ensemble acting. Like
many Berkshire venues the WTF is very committed not just to its audience
but to making an impact on the immediate and surrounding community. As is always the case
with such outreach programs, everybody gains. In this case, the use of non-Equity
Williamstown and nearby residents enabled Mr. Martin to assemble the full cast called for
by Kingsley's script.
A star character of both the original and this new Dead End is of course the metaphoric
highly detailed set. As a great fan of James Noone's set designs (see CurtainUp
's Mega Byte* Awards) I'm not in the least surprised that Mr. Noone not only
met the challenge of recreating Norman Bel Geddes's (a one time super star of set design), but has
surpassed it by actually managing to fill a section of the orchestra right below the stage with
water. While it's a nice touch I'm not convinced it's necessary. And if having a net instead of a
"real" river spelled the difference between giving people in other areas a chance to see this long
neglectedplay, I'd say, give up this added bit of realism. The set's real power to function as if it
were a key character begins with the scrim curtain on which a dark grim photo montage of New
suddenly lit (by Kenneth Posner) to reveal a street teeming with life . Everything seems almost
cheerful in this first sepia-like glow. Then, as your eyes take in the dark corners and the harsh
details, it quickly becomes evident that the impression of lightness is false The light, like the dark
skyline, has led you into a world into which little light and hope falls.
Abetting Noone and Posner's outstanding stagecraft are Michael Krass's costumes and Mark
Bennett's original score. The visual and musical collaboration makes for a memorably touching
closing image in which the Dead End boys sing "Now if I had the wings of an angel, over these
prison walls I would fly--and then I'd be willing to die."
By Sidney Kingsley
Directed by Nicholas Martin
With Robert Sean Leonard, Campbell Scott, Julie Dretzin, Marian Seldes, Hope, Lee Wilkof,
Tom Brennan, Bruce MacVittie, Rod McLachlan, Jennifer Schelter, Amy Van Nostrand and Scott
Sets: James Noone
Lighting: Kenneth Posner
Costumes: Michael Krass
Original Music: Mark
Adams Memorial/Williamstown Theatre Festival
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Additional Dead End and Related Information
Dead End first opened on Broadway on October 28, 1935.
It was hailed as proof that despite the Great Depression raging at the time, the theater was not
dead but a vivid force for good as well as entertainment.
It ran for 687 performances.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wife: Eleanor came to see the play three times and was
responsible for making the play the first command performance in the White House presented at
the request of the president whosubsequently appointed a slum study commission.
When Dead End was made into a movie (starring Humphrey Bogart, Joel McCrea, S
ylvia Sydney, Claire Trevor Wendie Barry, Marjorie Main) --and the dead end kids who appeared
in the original play: Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey and
Bernard Punsley. Their appearance in the movie led to many B-Movie spinoffs starring the "kids"
under various names, including the Bowery Kids. They prevailed on the small as well as large
screen until 1958.
The location said to have inspired Sidney Kingsley was the East Fifty-third Street dock which
contrasted the physical closeness and worlds apart aspects of New York City life.
Here's an except from Sidney Kingsley's stage directions:
Dead end of NY street ending in a wharf over th East river. To the left is a high terrace and white
iron gate leading to the back of the exclusive East River Terrace apartments. Hugging the terrace
and filling up the street are a series of squalid tenement houseses...Beyond the whart East River
covered by a swirling scum of an inch thick...a brown river, mucky with floating refuse and ofal.
A hundred sew3ers vomit their guts into it. It is here in all this muclp of tenements and
warehouse sthat the rich are establishing a beachhead of luxury...at the juncture of tenement and
terrace is a police stanchion bearing the warning "Dead End".
Sidney Kingsley won a Pulitzer Prize for another play, Men In White in 1933 and the
Drama Desk Award for Detective Story and Darkness at Noon. Despite
several other successes he was a forgotten man by the time he died in 1995).
Some interesting books I've read on New York life generally and the Dead End life in particular
are quoted in the WTF program notes and available on line for those interested in a more in-depth
You Must Remember This; An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890's to World War
by Jeff Kisseloff.
Low Life : Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante
The City in Slang : New York Life and Popular Speech by Irving Lewis Allen
©Copyright 1997, Elyse Sommer,
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