If Quentin Tarantino ever gets around to making a movie about a crew of 42nd Street hustlers who sell the “services” of a dead 14-year-old boy to a rich john, whom they in turn blackmail in order to pay off a drug debt, it would probably play a lot like Alan Bowne’s powerful drama “Forty Deuce.” There are so many of those Tarantino touches — grand guignol violence, the low-life milieu, guy-bonding, slang-ridden dialogue in need of occasional subtitling — that “Forty Deuce” could be misread as a gay “Reservoir Dogs.” Actually, it’s “Reservoir Dogs” that is the straight “Forty Deuce.”
First staged Off Off Broadway in 1981, Bowne’s play (“Forty Deuce” is street slang for “42nd Street”) may best be remembered today as helping launch the career of Kevin Bacon, who essayed the flashy role of Ricky, the hustler whose scheme to both dispose of the corpse and the drug debt sets the drama in motion.
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Of course, “Forty Deuce” is something much more significant than just another link in the six degrees of separation between Mr. Bacon and the rest of us. Bowne, who died in 1989 at 44, wrote only a handful of plays, and “Forty Deuce” is arguably the most accomplished. He brought high concept to Off Off Broadway as he knew exactly how to grab an audience by its crotch; his power plays show us how sex and money can be used in tandem to get and keep control of everything and everyone we think we want in life.
The Actors Circle Theatre’s fine new production of “Forty Deuce” captures the slippery, mercurial pursuit of that power struggle exactly right. The offstage kingpin Mike gives orders to Augie the pimp, who keeps a stranglehold on his gaggle of drug-addicted boys, all except, maybe, Blow, who probably loved the dead boy whose body is center stage for the play’s entirety.
Arthur Mendoza directs a tightly bound ensemble. As the rebel Blow, Jamie Gannon is especially effective in his understated performance, deftly avoiding Bowne’s occasional missteps into sentimentality. (Is the Keanesque painting of a sad clown, hanging over the boy’s death bed, a nod to the play’s minor flaw?) Victor Rivera’s Augie gathers force throughout the evening to make the play’s final scene, wherein he pulls all the strings to make his boys jump one last time, a truly harrowing moment.
Also impressive are Joseph Petrie’s fat cat john, Rene Rigal’s Ricky, and two other hustlers played by John Bohne and the pathetically funny Alan Marx. One could nitpick: Petrie has the patented, exaggerated diphthong of a too-well-heeled queen down to perfection, but his occasional outbursts of pent-up sexual aggression don’t quite register as anything other than an actor’s mannerism. Also, Rigal’s showy performance might benefit from a less exposed venue; sometimes a 47-seat theater is a little too close for comfort when someone is pretending to shoot up onstage.
Tracy Rowe’s flop-suite set is so effective you can almost smell the human decay. If only the hustlers who inhabit it had that same look of impending death. From the evidence here, Rigal is a good actor, as are Gannon and Bohne, but as these particular guys for rent they appear a little too ready for primetime. Or at least a stint on “The Young and the Restless.”
One need only walk outside the Actors Circle Theatre onto Santa Monica Boulevard to see the sorry condition of real-life male prostitutes. From the looks of these actors — the uncredited costumes feature a lot of washboard midriff — a Soloflex machine awaits them backstage between scenes.