By Sidney Kingsley; Directed by Randy Sharp
Off Off Broadway, Play Revival
Runs through 5.20.17
Axis Theatre Company, 1 Sheridan Square
by Ran Xia on 5.15.17
Lynn Mancinelli, Jon McCormick, and Emily Kratter in Dead End. Photo by Pavel Antonov.
BOTTOM LINE: Sidney Kingsley's Depression-era play remains relevant as the juxtaposition of the rich and the poor mirrors American society today.
On Manhattan's East Side, where each street ends at the river, you hear a duet of jaw harps and coughing fits. Tenements of the poor are adjacent to houses with terraces: they speak French up there and enjoy afternoon tea while just beneath them, an old lady snatches a scrap of bread from a cooing baby. The rich are here for the real estate and the picturesque scenery of the waterfront. The poor are here because there’s nowhere else to go. On 53rd Street you see fancy suits walking pass teenage gangsters running barefoot along the river, where kids swim in the pollution. The rich, the poor, the prostitutes, and the workers on strike all populate the canvas of Dead End, a 1935 play turned into a film that went on to make the “Dead End Kids” cultural icons of a whole generation.
Dead End is a complex story, with the fate of each character connected in an intricate web that extends beyond the present; every action seems to cause butterfly effect, but there are a few focal points. There’s the group of boys who are rowdy as a form of self-protection. Their leader Tommy (a charismatic Jon McCormick) seems a crossover between a James Dean wannabe and Peter Pan. Tommy’s sister Drina (Shira Averbuch) is on strike for better pay, while making futile efforts to keep her brother off the streets. Drina seems to have a soft spot for would-be architect Gimpty (George Demas), who was once upon a time a teenage gangster himself. Gimpty has managed to turn his life around, but his past begins to haunt him when the deliciously villainous criminal “Babyface” Martin (Brian Barnhart) drops in for a visit. Reality and dreams become entangled in a never-ending cycle of unresolved debts and crimes that seep through the vein of a city on its knees.
Director Randy Sharp has turned Sidney Kingsley’s Depression-era relic into something still relevant, while keeping the aesthetic of an old black-and-white movie. There’s a promenade style to the production, with the ensemble remaining on stage for the entire show. The sound of the riverside street is also a constant (a clever mixture of practical instruments including jaw harp and hand percussion, along with Paul Carbonara’s original music), accompanying the unlikely bunch as their paths cross. Different parts of the stage become activated as the story unfolds. However, while the intention should be applauded, the constantly crowded stage, especially with everyone in dark clothes, leaves little room for imagination.
Averbuch’s Drina has a quiet strength that makes her instantly relatable. The same is true for Britt Genelin’s Kay, whose nuanced performance makes her a sympathetic character, one who must tread between two polar opposites, due to her romantic connection with both Gimpty and Phillip (Jake Murphy). Barnhart's "Babyface" and Katie Rose Summerfield's Francey share an intense moment that will make you hold your breath until the magnetic pair exit the scene. Among the teenage gangsters, Emily Kratter convincingly portrays Milty, the newest member of the gang, as a wide-eyed child who seeks a sense of belonging; Lynn Mancinelli’s Angel is surprisingly endearing, even if the character is somewhat despicable. However there is some exaggerated acting, especially by a few of the adult actors portraying children, that unfortunately makes the characters seem like caricatures, which doesn’t seem to be the goal of the play.
What hits the hardest, however, is not the slice of life from almost a century ago that the play offers, but rather the eerily familiar sight that all but says it's today. Dead End shows us the quintessential American life we know: the workers struggle on minimum wage, not getting the attention they deserve, and two different worlds—rich and poor—coexist on the streets of New York. Yesterday's teenage gangsters still drink the chemically polluted air in places like Gowanus and other neighborhoods in the midst of gentrification. They're the sewer rats of our society, and they show a warning sign of a past that still lingers.
(Dead End plays at Axis Theatre, 1 Sheridan Square, through May 20, 2017. The running time is 1 hour 20 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7; Fridays and Saturdays at 8. Tickets are $30 and are available at axiscompany.org or by calling 212-807-9300.)
Dead End is by Sidney Kinsley. Directed by Randy Sharp. Set Design is by Chad Yarborough. Lighting Design is by David Zeffren. Costume Design is by Karl Ruckdeschel. Additional Music is by Paul Carbonara.
The cast is Spencer Aste, Shira Averbuch, Brian Barnhart, Regina Betancourt, George Demas, Britt Genelin, Phil Gillen, Laurie Kilmartin, Emily Kratter, Jon McCormick, Lynn Mancinelli, Jake Murphy, Brian Parks, and Katie Rose Summerfield.