In 1933, playwright Sidney Kingsley reportedly walked through a New York slum and watched kids swimming in the filthy East River, then looked beyond this shabbiness toward a nearby luxury building. The juxtaposition of classes inspired him to write "Dead End," an angry protest against poverty and its role in perpetuating crime.
In 1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sidney Kingsley reportedly walked through a New York slum and watched kids swimming in the filthy East River, then looked beyond this shabbiness toward a nearby luxury building. The juxtaposition of poor and privileged classes inspired him to write “Dead End,” an angry protest against poverty and its role in perpetuating crime. The Ahmanson’s first production under new artistic director Michael Ritchie is an impressively mounted contemporary take on a play that retains its relevance despite some dated 1930s attitudes and moments of leisurely, amorphous storytelling.
Ritchie has gambled on showmanship to draw crowds; this elaborate production offers James Noone’s huge, remarkably detailed New York set, spotlighting the posh 30-story River House side by side with towering tenements hung with washing and broken windows. Simulating the East River with 10,000 gallons of chlorinated water where the orchestra pit used to be, production creates a literal splash when five teen thugs dive in. Their interplay — a blend of camaraderie and hostility — eventually distracts from the novelty of a river onstage and puts the story in motion.
This rambunctious quintet, expertly portrayed by Sam Murphy, Trevor Peterson, Adam Rose, Ricky Ullman and Greg Roman, is enjoyable to watch, but also the most old-fashioned aspect of the enterprise. Their stylized slang occasionally feels like musical comedy, and you half expect them to break into a “West Side Story”-style song. This is especially true in the first act, until humor yields to stark reality and Tommy (Ullman) beats rich kid Philip (Benjamin Platt), arousing the unforgiving antagonism of the boy’s outraged father (Charley Lang).
The heart of the play rests with that ’30s gangster staple, the law-abiding young man, in this case college-educated but unemployed architect Gimpty (Tom Everett Scott), and Baby-Face Martin (Jeremy Sisto), a gangster who murdered eight men. Gimpty, who limps, must endure Baby-Face’s taunt “You’re a cripple”; Baby-Face has altered his appearance with plastic surgery to elude capture. The two converse uneasily, connected by childhood history but never progressing toward genuine friendship.
As Gimpty, Scott offers a multilayered portrayal that suggests strength beneath a gentle exterior. He’s a dreamer, yet he has the courage to confront a deadly gangster, and his passive acceptance of sordid injustice is clearly a prelude to the time when he speaks up and takes action. Scott is required to bring off a plot twist about squealing to the law that risks audience alienation, but his portrait of integrity makes the development palatable.
Gimpty’s growing involvement with rich girl Kay (Sarah Hudnut) is rescued from cliche by director Nicholas Martin’s approach to their relationship. He guides Hudnut to play Kay as a worthwhile human being whose affection for Gimpty isn’t sufficient to make her surrender a sumptuous lifestyle to be with him. Their scenes lack an electric charge and progress too obviously but retain enough honesty to sustain interest.
The electric charge is supplied by Sisto, a figure of dapper deadliness in Michael Krass’ gray pinstriped suit and fedora. Sisto never apes the Humphrey Bogart portrayal that distinguished William Wyler’s 1937 film version. He doesn’t snarl or blatantly announce, “I’m a killer,” and glimmers of humanity seep through the homicidal front. Sisto’s psychotic magnetism makes understandable why the trapped, dysfunctional youngsters would romanticize him.
Famous sequences are vividly re-enacted. In one, Sisto’s Baby-Face speaks to his mother, Mrs. Martin (Joyce Van Patten), who transcends affectation with a terrifyingly primal, gut-level outburst against her son. It’s the kind of perf that truly draws goosebumps, and when she screams, “Murderer!,” she conveys the bottomless grief of a parent who both loves and despises her child.
Baby-Face also confronts Francey (a repellently realistic Pamela Gray), the dream girl of his youth. His initial, long-lingering adoration is replaced with agonized disgust when he realizes she’s a prostitute in the advanced stages of venereal disease. Sisto viscerally conveys the revulsion and pain of lost dreams after he gives Francey a reluctant kiss.
Mark Bennett’s first-rate, cuttingly cool score has a subtle, streetwise flavor and Rick Sordelet’s fight direction is powerfully effective in staging battles with guns and fists.
Despite these production contributions, the show’s ambition — in attempting to cover two separate worlds so completely — exceeds its grasp. With a cast of 42, the stories often feel tenuously linked. This is sharply noticeable after Baby-Face’s death, and the third act deals with Tommy’s violence and the anxiety of his sister, Drina (Kathryn Hahn), to save him from reform school. Hahn’s desperate Drina is bitterly authentic, but her relationship with Gimpty — a supportive alternative to rich, pragmatic Kay — doesn’t register strongly and Tommy’s plight is less compelling than Baby-Face’s.
Director Martin and the production designers project the acrid smell, sound and taste of paralyzing poverty. Although the play inspired FDR to create a commission on slum housing and promoted the passage of a bill for the elimination of unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions, its greatest message today is a reminder of the dead end the world has reached in stamping out these conditions, even 72 years later.