The subway men’s room set of Brian Silberman’s gritty “Sugar Down Billie Hoak” is so filth-encrusted audiences might want to shower after leaving the theater. Silberman’s drama about two homeless teenage brothers tries hard for the same in-your-face harshness, but too often what should carry the stench of reality instead has the whiff of an earnest English major entranced with his graphic style.
Silberman clearly has done his research: The show’s program notes list 33 up-to-the-second drug-related slang terms, and the playwright is hellbent on shoe-horning every one into his rapid-fire dialogue. The title refers to diluting (“sugaring down”) cocaine (“Billie Hoak”), and since that particular practice has little if any bearing on the action, one must assume Silberman merely liked the sound of the words. If the approach betrays more than a little self-satisfaction, it only partially obscures the young playwright’s emerging talent: When not wallowing in its own excesses, “Sugar” shows a promising vitality that more honing (Guy Stroman’s direction could use some sugaring down itself) should enhance.
Set at 3 a.m. in an abandoned subway john in New York City’s meat-packing district, “Sugar” follows two teenage half-brothers, Duke (Brian Vincent) and Boogie (Jon A. Abrahams), as they frantically plot a course to handle a drug rip-off gone bad. Small-time hustlers, the boys have gotten themselves in over their heads by violently stealing a brick of cocaine from their pimp — a man they have underestimated, to dire consequence.
The tense situation opens deep emotional wounds from a troubled past. Left on their own since their father’s apparent suicide, the boys have survived by their wits, or rather, Duke’s wits: Playing George to Boogie’s slow-witted Lennie, Duke is alternately loving, angry, saddened and ultimately guilt-ridden over his younger brother’s inability to fend for himself.
When Duke goes off to make amends with the pimp, Boogie is confronted by old Street (Michael Cambden Richards), a revoltingly unkempt homeless man whose sudden appearance is the only true surprise of the play. Unfortunately, it also triggers both Silberman’s and director Stroman’s worst inclinations: “Sugar’s” second act is loaded with pretentious psycho-melodrama exploring paternal relationships, sexual abuse and sins of the fathers visited upon the sons. Needless to say, all does not end well.
Essentially a one-act play stretched to two, “Sugar” does feature two lively performances from the talented Vincent and Abrahams as the brothers, although they too succumb to the play’s overwrought dramatics. Richards can do little to make a real person out of the wise/cruel father figure from hell. Only Edward T. Gianfrancesco’s set is perfect, to the last disgusting stain.