Remember the Dead End Kids? Possibly not, unless you’re a student of B-movie genres or a Turner Classic Movies junkie. But the kids, led by Billy Halop, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, and Gabriel Dell, enjoyed a film career starting in the Depression—cracking wise, getting into scraps, peddling broad Noo Yawk accents, and challenging authority. The kids prospered at several studios, well into the 1950s and long past being kids. To many a moviegoer in flyover states, the Dead End Kids were New York.
Even fans of the kids may forget that they started out on Broadway. Sidney Kingsley, a respected commercial playwright from the 1930s to the ’60s (his other works include Detective Story and Men in White), had his biggest hit with Dead End, a 1935 drama receiving a rare revival at the Axis Theatre Company. Or, let’s say, receiving a partial rare revival. This Dead End starts at 8:05 and rings down at 9:20, a running time that no 1930s audience would have tolerated. What’s missing, who can say, but what remains is a random fricassee of scenes and situations, arriving one after the other because they can’t all arrive at once.
So it’s a snapshot here, a snapshot there, an unfocused study of rich and poor coexisting in the East 50s, and undisciplined kids mouthing off in then-shocking language (crap, fart, fairy—like that). These unsupervised urchins, all boys but played here by both genders, pitch pennies, hustle for loose change, skip school, and sass their superiors. Grownups come and go, and a couple of possible romances among them spark and dim. A crook from the neighborhood (Brian Barnhart), cosmetically altered by plastic surgery, tries to keep a step ahead of the law, and is cruelly rejected by his mother (Laurie Kilmartin). Drina (Shira Averbuch), the older sister of one of the kids, a strike organizer, looks for a way out of her stultifying existence. A cop (Phil Gillen) patrols the beat. A doorman (Brian Parks) tries to keep order. A down-on-his-luck local with a limp (George Demas) flirts with a well-to-do redhead (Brit Genelin). An easily excitable kid (Jon McComick) gets in trouble. There’s talk of prison, Red-baiting, and reform school, and how to make cigarettes out of horse poop.
It’s all terribly arbitrary, and as rendered here, it doesn’t hang together. Kingsley had a good ear for small talk among different classes, and director Randy Sharp nicely paces the dialogue, with overlapping conversations punctuated by popular songs of the period. (She also encourages some needless movement: why, oh why is that one Dead End Kid constantly miming jerking off?) But there’s a feeling we’re just milling about, no dramatic momentum, no suggestion that we’re seriously examining any social problems or proffering any solutions. The 1937 film version, directed for Sam Goldwyn by William Wyler and starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, and an up-and-coming Humphrey Bogart, is reputed to have zeroed in on the good and bad influences surrounding the kids and the effects of rich and poor coexisting in such a small space. But it’s long out of circulation, so we can't compare it with these random meanderings.
Chad Yarborough’s set is all gray, with little definition to indicate exactly where we are. Karl Ruckdeschel’s costumes are similarly monochromatic, including, for some reason, nylon skull coverings for the kids, with pigtails attached. There’s isolated good work from the actors, notably from Averbuch, who catches Drina’s desperation and anxiety without overmilking them, and Emily Kratter, the most natural, neediest Dead End Kid onstage.
What’s lacking is focus, and urgency. The kids’ violent natures should be constant and threatening, but there’s a curious passivity afoot, and the small talk feels smaller than it ought to. It’s hard to know where to look on the wide Axis stage, and as supporting characters wander aimlessly on the periphery, the focus gets blurred. The Axis is located in the basement of 1 Sheridan Square, which once housed the glories of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and before that was the site of Café Society, where Billie Holiday rubbed shoulders with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lena Horne duetted with Sarah Vaughan. With this listless, incomplete Dead End, the fabled space appears to be marking time.
Dead End plays through May 20 at the Axis Theatre Company, 1 Sheridan Square, New York. Showtimes are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays. For tickets and information, call (212) 807-9300 or visit axiscompany.org.