Last night, we got to check out Axis Company’s exciting revival of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. I’d gotten to see a portion in rehearsal for my feature about the show in Chelsea Now. It whetted my appetite for more.
This was the twelfth Axis show I’ve either seen or written about over the past 17 years, the others being: Frankenstein, Woyzeck, the American premiere of Sarah Kane’s Crave (which featured Debbie Harry!), Hospital, Seven in One Blow, A Glance at New York, Edgar Oliver’s East 10th Street: Self-Portrait with Empty House, trinity 5:29, Down There and Evening 1910. And there are several others of their’s I’ve kicked myself for missing, including more than one show about Houdini. The company has come to be one of those in NYC whose work I know the best. I never set out to make that happen, and sometimes, a few years pass between my visits. But artistic director’s Randy Sharp’s combination of passions (an apparent obsession with oddball, often murderous, American history mixed with an aesthetic of avant-garde modernism and a love of technology) is close enough to mine, though parallel, to constantly intrigue me.
Dead End is a wonderful example of how she works. The original play was the height of realism for its time, considered documentary-like, and was produced by the Group Theatre, the original American cult of Stanislavski’s Method. While it possesses some antiquated elements like stock characters and situations, hangovers and conventions from the melodrama era which folks in the 30s either didn’t see or didn’t mind since they were so close to it, Dead End was originally laid out to be very “here and now”, anchored to its own time (the 1930s) and a very particular place (the slums of the East Side of Manhattan).
Sharp’s instinct in the current production is to abstract and universalize the setting. Probably drab and grey to begin with when they originally mounted it on Broadway, Sharp and her designers have dialed the entire color scheme all the way up to black: every set piece, costume, and prop (including things like newspapers, dollar bills and a shine box). The dock pilings which are a major element of the setting (a gang of poor kids hangs out there, jumping off it occasionally to swim in the polluted East River) is represented by three highly stylized (simplified) black cylinder shapes. This hellish scenography transplants the story to some more timeless place that adds existential juice to the play’s title: Dead End as No Exit, or “the neighborhood” as The Village in The Prisoner. The kids in the gang wear hood-like head pieces which resemble early aviation helmets, or perhaps something a medieval monk or nun might wear. These kids (Emily Kratter, Jon McCormick, Regina Betancourt, and Lynn Mancinelli) are at once the element that anchors us the most to the purported time and place (the slang, the accents), but they are also formalized into a chorus, often chanting lines in unison, or underscoring the action with percussive sounds, literally “banging a can”. The resetting of the production into limbo makes certain lines pop as being as much “now” as “then”. A character’s monologue about the neighborhood being disrupted when a fancy high rise was recently put up in their midst could have been written yesterday.
Disruption seems to be the leitmotif overall: The entire cast remains onstage for the duration, edgily roiling and twitching with discontent and agida. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go — even for those who’ve left, like the gangster Babyface Martin (a terrifying Brian Barnhart) and the cripple Gimpty, who studied six years to be an architect (George Demas). Both have returned to the birthplace of their misery as though they’d been tethered there with bungee chords. Tommy, the leader of the gang (McCormick), is wanted for a crime, but insists on hanging around the neighborhood, unable or unwilling to flee even if it means freedom. Trapped like animals in a cage, the characters devour each other, squabble, demean, and cut each other up (both literally and figuratively). Some have visions and express hope, but there’s no agit-prop here, no magic recipe to make it all go away. It’s what makes the play modern, easily adaptable to Sharp’s aesthetic, and relatable to our own experience.
“Life sucks and then you die”? Something like that. But somehow people do go on, and, as Camus might say, I guess that’s the point. And the SHOW doesn’t suck! You should see it. It’s up through May 20: here’s the Axis web site for more info and tix.