Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review of Road at Curio Theatre

First published in Edge Phialdelphia:

Besides loving company, misery delivers ratings, because if nothing else, it’s usually interesting to watch. And judging from the tone of newspaper editorials, congressional outrage, and talking heads on television, some people clearly delight in the current economic crisis.

They’re the same people who would enjoy Jim Cartwright’s Road, now in a stilted, uneven production at Curio Theatre Company. Cartwright penned his play during the severe depression that afflicted England in the early-to-mid-1980s, when that country’s unemployment rates hit 20%. With the playwright’s permission, director Gay Carducci transferred the setting to 2009 West Philadelphia. And while America’s current "economic crisis" hasn’t reached anything near those numbers, a sense of relevance mostly permeates Curio’s staging.

Beyond a broken street sign that juts from a corner of the stage, Paul Kuhn’s disparate set pieces appears like a graveyard of props-crumbling flophouses, littered curbsides, and sparsely furnished interiors-and show a world that’s familiar to any Philadelphian who ventures outside of Center City. Prostitutes and pushers roam the streets, petty thieves snag their loot from pockets, and young and old alike bury their heads in local taverns.

Here, a young hooligan named Scullery (Newton Buchanan) narrates through a depressing series of vignettes, drawing a perverse comparison to the similar role played by the Stage Manager in Our Town. Clare (Chelsea Bulack) whines about missing her "little office job which she loved so much," Carol (Erika Hicks) wants something different than being pawned over night after night, and the crazy Mrs. Bald (Aetna Gallagher) trades songs for cigarettes or a swig of liquor from Scullery’s bottle. A mother smokes (despite the oxygen tube under her nose), women sell their bodies to keep their kids clothed, and even in a rotten economy, people still have money enough to drink.

The former sociology Professor (Kuhn), who first came to West Philly to record the suffering, now drags his files like a cross, and Ken Opdenaker’s skinhead reminds of the ethnic hatreds that often fragment neighborhoods in tough economic times. Clearly, all of these different individuals (the cast plays more than two-dozen roles) share a lack of jobs, dwindling resources, and diminishing hope. While some characters consider alternate economic models (communism, what else?), in the best single performance of the night, Joey (Delanté G. Keys) tries to escape through a hunger strike, his starvation a protest against the failings of a mixed economy.

Despite many fine moments and a sense of relevance that might otherwise engage, the production drags for one simple reason: it’s not funny. Cartwright built plenty of moments of humor into the script; when a prostitute offers her services for ten dollars, her john counters "that’s not very much," to which she replies, "maybe I’m not very much either." I laughed, hearing the jaded sense of humor the script intends but which Carducci’s production never managed to capture. As a result, one depressing scenario leads into another, ad nauseum, lacking the rolling momentum that even bits of comedy could have easily provided to buoy one scene into the next.

I can’t blame Carducci entirely. Few in the audience laughed at anything. Most likely, seeing the misery on stage, they felt afraid to indulge the jokes that did succeed. And unlike similar characters (think Mack the Knife), Buchanan’s rascal offers little charm or charisma to make theatergoers feel at ease enough to indulge the humor.

Despite solid production values in Jon Bulack’s original score and sound design and Jared Reed’s sharp lighting, Carducci and his cast "choke on the bitterness," in the script and this "Road" offers nothing but pessimism porn at its most exemplary. Scullery tells us early on "you can’t escape." Maybe not, but I wanted to.

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