When Tough Guys Said "Bushwah" | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

When Tough Guys Said "Bushwah" 

It might seem tame today, but history has proved Sidney Kingsley's 70-year-old drama prescient.

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Dead End | Griffin Theatre Company

WHEN Through 11/12: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont

PRICE $24

INFO 773-327-5252

In 1935 Sidney Kingsley's drama Dead End--with its violent action and coarse, occasionally profane dialogue spoken by teenagers--was a shocker. Today the language seems tame: frig for fuck, bushwah for bullshit. But as the Griffin Theatre's mounting of this rarely revived work reveals, Kingsley's study of bonding and betrayal in the urban jungle is powerful and prescient. If the brutality and vulgarity depicted in Dead End are mild compared to today's everyday reality, the escalating severity of the social problems Kingsley identified underscores the frightening truth of his vision.

The "dead end" is a street along New York's East River, where posh apartments butt up against waterfront slums. Here a pack of street kids loiters, pitching pennies, playing cards, swimming in the polluted river, and bullying weaker children. The group's alpha male, Tommy, fends off challenges from his rival, Spit, so named because of his habit of spitting in people's faces. The other boys are Angel, Dippy, the tubercular TB, and the new "Jew kid," Milty. The boys cling together for protection and companionship, but internal friction and external pressures threaten to turn them against one another in a world where three cents is cause for a fight and straying onto the wrong turf is reason for war.

Two former gang members observe the teens' interactions. Unemployed architect Gimpty, lame since childhood, dreams of tearing down the tenements and building affordable housing. He pines for Kay, the materialistic mistress of a businessman who lives in an elegant high-rise overlooking the river. Tommy's sister Drina, a labor activist, secretly loves Gimpty. The other onlooker is Baby Face Martin, onetime leader of Gimpty's old gang, a Dillinger-like hoodlum with a brand-new face ("plastic, they call it"). He wants to hook up with an old girlfriend, Francey. Only Francey's a syphilitic streetwalker now, and Baby Face has a $4,000 bounty on his head. Gimpty and Baby Face, Kay and Francey, Tommy and Spit--all are looking for an escape from poverty and deprivation.

The original Broadway staging of this sprawling work was famous for its large cast--some 45 actors, including 6 youngsters who went on to appear in the 1937 film version and a subsequent series of movies featuring the Dead End Kids (later the Bowery Boys). Most professional theaters today would find the play prohibitively expensive to produce, but non-Equity Griffin has tackled the project with impressive success under Jonathan Berry's direction. The 27-person ensemble is headed by John Dixon, Russell Armstrong, Charles Filipov, Dan Foster, Joe Goldhammer, and Steve Gensler as the gang; they capture both the engaging exuberance and desperate dangerousness of these career criminals in the making. Dylan Lower and Cora Vander Broek achingly embody the potential of Gimpty and Drina's romance, which gives the play its tentative hopeful ending.

Lower's soft-spoken immediacy as Gimpty is especially moving, bringing Kingsley's unusual blend of politics and poetry, social realism and spirituality, down to earth. It's Gimpty who delivers the play's enduring message, couched in a seemingly casual discussion of evolution. "Once evolution gave snakes feet to walk on," he says. "Then it took them away. 'Now men,' says Evolution, 'I made you walk straight, I gave you feeling, I gave you reason, I gave you a sense of beauty, I planted a God in your heart. Now let's see what you're going to do with them. An' if you can't do anything with them, then I'll take them all away, and men will crawl on their bellies on the ground like snakes, or die off altogether."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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