In a great loss to the theater, Alan Bowne died young. Before leaving us, he wrote several plays (Beirut, Sharon and Billy, The Able Bodied Seaman) that are frequently plundered by actors for juicy scenes and monologues. He had an exceptional talent for writing colorful characters and placing them in situations rife with drama -- so it's not surprising that the current staging of Forty-Deuce, presented at Chashama as part of Spotlight On's second annual Halloween Festival, was produced by one of the actors in the show. People want to play these terrific parts, and if they have to mount the play themselves in order to do so, more power to them -- providing that they're talented, which is the case here.
Forty-Deuce is set in "a dingy room overlooking Eighth Avenue," back in the days when Eighth Avenue was even sketchier than it is now. A desperate hustler named Ricky (the Kevin Bacon role) hopes to pimp John Anthony, a young kid fresh off the bus from somewhere, to Mr. Roper, a sadistic businessman; but the plan goes awry when the kid dies after Ricky shoots him up with drugs that turn out to have been tainted. This creates a huge problem for Augie, who runs the "facilities" wherein the hookers ply their trade, and for the rest of the guys in his stable: Crank, Mitchell, and Blow.
It's a measure of Bowne's achievement that Forty-Deuce punches you in the gut without resorting to sensationalism; while it has lots of explicit language, the play as written contains no onstage sex, nudity, or drug taking. In his examination of extremely unpleasant aspects of human existence and behavior, Bowne helped lay the groundwork for the work of such later playwrights as Suzan-Lori Parks and Martin McDonagh. I was fascinated to learn that, while some of the colorful words and phrases bandied about by the characters of Forty-Deuce are based on the actual patois of their real-life counterparts, others were apparently invented by Bowne. (They sure as hell sound authentic.) Times and 42nd Street may have changed but, of course, this kind of stuff is still going on, so the play doesn't seem dated in any significant way -- though it sure is funny when, at one point, the hustlers talk about stealing a card from Roper's wallet in order to get cash from a wondrous new machine at the bank.
The production is so excellent overall that it's only minimally compromised by questionable choices as to how certain individual moments should be played and staged. As Ricky, Scott Amen makes an impressive, credible transition from sick puppy to bravado-filled schemer to furious, frightened little boy during the play's relentless 90 minutes. Sean Twomey has Augie's speech patterns and body language down pat in a truly organic performance, and his rough-trade sex appeal is palpable. Chad L. Schiro, last seen as a boot-scootin' redneck in Urban Cowboy, is terrific as the fluttery Mitchell -- a role that has been reconceived as a transvestite hooker for this production. As Crank, Sean Blanco is hilarious when freaking out over conflicting directions on how to get to the Upper East Side by subway. Best of all is the powerfully subtle, wonderfully naturalistic performance of Dave Gueriera as Blow. "In the moment" throughout the play, this actor will break your heart with his character's monologue about guys who come to 42nd Street to be with male prostitutes, then go home to the suburbs or the Midwest or wherever and throw their gay sons or brothers out of the house for not being "man enough."
The dramatic high point of Forty-Deuce is a long, rambling, drug-fueled monologue delivered by Mr. Roper to the unfortunate "fetus" John Anthony, whom he doesn't realize is dead. The piece is so fearsome a challenge, both in terms of acting and sheer memorization, that anyone who gets through it deserves an award; Anthony Henderson does much more than "get through it," offering a chilling portrait of a man who still retains enough of a conscience to know that he's become a monster. Finally, though Jeremy Roland has almost nothing to do as John Anthony other than lie there, he certainly looks like the sort of beautiful, young innocent that a rich, jaded john would pay good money for.
Aside from letting some of the actors go just a bit over the top at times, director Damon W. Arrington has done an exemplary job of bringing the play to life in all its sordid glory. The addition of some wordless blackout scenes -- including two at the beginning, wherein we seen John Anthony beginning to have sex with Ricky and then being shot up by him -- neither helps nor hurts the play. Craig Connole has come up with appropriate costumes, but no set or lighting designer is credited for the production. The set consists of little more than the bed, placed center stage, on which John Anthony lies beneath a sheet; but someone deserves a lot of credit for providing atmospheric lighting with a paucity of instruments. It was quite a brilliant choice to have that ever-present bed illuminated by a parallelogram of bright light, as if from a window, while the actors often perform in semi-shadow.
In 1982, a film version of Forty-Deuce that featured most of the original stage cast -- including Orson Bean as Roper! -- was released. Directed by Paul Morrissey in a highly experimental style, the flick was a flop, and I very much doubt that it's rentable on home video. After all these years, it would be great to see what Morrissey, Bacon, Bean, and company made of the material. Still, Forty-Deuce packs more of a wallop on stage than it ever could on screen. The current production at Chashama does the play proud, and the fact that it's being staged in what used to be a seedy "male burlesque" theater definitely adds to the experience. Because it's part of a festival, the show has an odd schedule, so make note: It will be performed again on Tuesday and Wednesday, October 21 and 22, at 7pm; Friday, October 24 at 3pm; Monday, October 27 at 9pm; Wednesday, October 29 at 5pm; Saturday, November 1 at 7pm; and Sunday, November 2 at 9:30pm. For tickets, phone 212-352-3101 or click here.