Sydney Pollack’s award-winning 1969 film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s gritty Depression era novel offered an affecting but distant view of a seedy dance marathon competition that served as a metaphor for the dehumanizing hard times of the 1930s. The Greenway Arts Alliance stage production, adapted by Rick Sparks and Gary Carter, staged by Sparks, thrusts the audience into the midst of the sweaty grime and existential despair. These hopeless wrecks actually brush by you as they endure hundreds of hours of terpsichorean torture while slowly peeling away their emotional epidermis to reveal the festering life-inflicted wounds beneath. Though the production stops short of truly dramatizing the mummifying catatonia that would permeate the 40 straight days of inhuman degradation, it is still a memorably haunting depiction of lost souls who have to keep moving just to prove they are still alive.
Set up as a tawdry ballroom dance floor surrounded by spectator bleachers, the Greenway stage area has been impressively transformed into 1935 LaMonica Ballroom at the tip of the Santa Monica Pier. James Eric’s facile set design also designates the backstage office of oily but philosophical emcee Rocky (Andrew Prine) and the minuscule men’s and women’s dressing room areas, where the contestants are allowed a 10-minute break every hour.
Sparks achieves a seamless interplay of ballroom survival tactics and backstage catharsis as the couples struggle to stay in the competition while maintaining their sanity.
Complicating their efforts are the cruel gimmicks imposed on them by Rocky and his jovial but sadistic boss Socks (Mark Tracy). Not only do the couples have to stay on their feet, they occasionally have to perform novelty song and dance numbers and endure the brutal prodding of swarthy floor judge Rollo (Robert Ruth).
The horrific highlight of this exploitation is a 20-minute non-stop derby race in which the exhausted women hang on to their partners while they sprint around the dance floor.
The storyline mainly focuses on beautiful but downtrodden Gloria (performed with haunting dignity by Gretchen German) whose tragic experiences cannot dim her innate sense of truth and conviction.
Responding as a willing if inadequate satellite to her voracious need is Paul Marius’ impressively callow dust bowl hick Robert, whose reminiscence of watching his grandfather putting an end to the misery of a crippled horse gives Gloria her key to eternal rest and salvation.
There is not one weak link in this talented, extensive ensemble, which brings to life the simultaneous plights of marathon pro James (Steven Ruge) and his very pregnant but always willing wife Ruby (Whitney Weston), the temperamental and abusive Kid (co-writer Carter) and his sad sack punching bag girlfriend Mattie (Eileen T’Kaye), escaped con Mario (Todd Connor) and simple-minded movie fan Jackie (Wendy Johnson), drug-addicted starlet wannabe Rosemary (Emma Warg) and oafish Guy (Scott Kreamer), self-serving Latino movie bit player Raphael (Rene Rivera) and his sex-loving girlfriend Lillian (Audrey Rapoport), hot-to-trot underage jailbait Kate (Susan D. Little) and skittish beau Freddy (Lee Eskey).
Also in attendance are audience members like the insidious underworld drug dealer Lou (John Cassini) and cadaverous but wealthy grande dame Mrs. Laden, who would like nothing better than to be a “sponsor” of Robert.
Special mention must go to film, TV and stage vet Prine (sci-fi series, “V”) for his portrayal of Rocky (Gig Young earned a supporting actor Oscar for his perf in the role). Prine’s Rocky embodies the poverty-driven decadence of the most blighted decade in the 20th century.