On the evidence of “Slag Heap,” there may be worse infringements than youth prostitution, many of them being committed by the playwright. It would be gratifying to report that this world premiere is a worthy discovery to kick off the ninth decade of the Cherry Lane, Off Broadway’s oldest operating theater. However, Anton Dudley’s lead-footed play about twentysomethings for rent in Thatcherian England is as obvious and inauthentic in its salty humor and self-conscious edginess as in the strained raw poetry of its tragic denouement. Sole saving grace is an arresting, scruffy perf from “Angel” regular Vincent Kartheiser.
Bringing far more credibility than the material deserves, Kartheiser plays Dave, a scrawny hustler turning low-paying tricks on the streets of Manchester with gal pal Ashley (Polly Lee). Dave gets a taste of bigger bucks when he teams with former school sweetheart Fran (Brienan Nequa Bryant) to provide double fun for a fat man in a limo. Fran encourages him to dump deadwood skank Ashley and move up the ‘ho chain.
Meanwhile, Fran’s abrasive slattern of a sister, Donna (Janelle Anne Robinson), has been toying with Pakistani delivery boy Darwin (Alexander Flores), introducing the underage kid to some druggy sexual experimentation that ends badly.
Weighted with the sudden sobriety of this development, the second act shifts to London, where Dave shacks up in the basement of a rave club with now-troubled Fran. As if the fake Mancunian accents weren’t enough, in walks another dialectal affront in the form of upscale sleaze cliche Natalie (Maggie Moore), a cheesily French-accented photographer on the A-list club circuit, who lures starry-eyed Vincent into participating in self-mutilating erotica spreads.
Dudley extracts the pathos from the scenario with the subtlety of a sadistic dentist wielding a pair of pliers. His wounded, homeless slags are constantly waxing faux-lyrical about clean sheets, freshly laundered clothes, towels that smell of bleach and a warm, dry flat, hammering the political subtext about the disenfranchised children of Thatcher’s Britain: “You ever wonder what would have happened if there hadn’t been all that trouble when we were younger?” asks Fran. “If there hadn’t been the teacher’s strike or the poll tax, all the unemployment.”
There’s little here to suggest the playwright has spent much research time with real prostitutes, and his attempts at pungent street-trash humor play like bad British TV sketch comedy that mistakenly believes it’s hip and transgressive: “You take it up the shitter, yeah?” “You have to these days.”
Working on Michael Brown’s minimally designed set, director Michael Morris navigates the ponderous text with a steady hand, punctuating scenes with snatches of ’80s Brit pop and techno tunes. But he’s at a loss attempting to draw much nuance from his cast, who seem infected by Dudley’s tendency to try way too hard.
Kartheiser is the exception, managing to retain dignity (and a fairly consistent accent) even through a doozy of a druggy monologue. But even in Dave’s case, hustling since he was 13, there’s too little verisimilitude in these sad dreamer characters or their dire situations to invite much profound sympathy.
Bryant and Lee have the toughest task, animating two ungrounded characters who undergo drastic transitions, neither of them with much success. Fran’s sassy emotional detachment lurches awkwardly into the kind of morose introspection common to whiny alt-rock. (“Freedom’s not really free at all, I guess”; “Just once I want to be loved the way I need to be loved and not go through life like a knife through water.”) Ashley segues directly from nutty youthfulness (conveyed by Lee bouncing about like a wannabe Jane Horrocks) to off-kilter shrillness in a violent final act that — to borrow a word bandied about by the playwright — is assaultive but blandly unaffecting.