American Century Theater On the WaterfrontBy Genie Baskir • Apr 7th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
The American Century Theater
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through April 28th
2:20 with intermission
$30-$35/$27-$32 Seniors, students military (plus fees)
Discounts at Goldstar or TicketPlace
Reviewed April 4th, 2012
What is the price of doing the right thing and when is that cost too high?
Your humble reviewer is obliged, from the outset, to disclose that she produced for TACT a year before this review and that her own daughter is appearing in a future TACT production. Does this make her biased? Probably, but not for the reasons one might think. Your reviewer’s affinity for TACT and its production of On the Waterfront grounded in the company’s mission and Artistic Director Jack Marshall’s belief that we must take our 20th century historical instruction in an agreeable way. What is more agreeable than an evening at the theatre? TACT’s sincerity and belief in its mission keep this company running and its audience loyal. On the Waterfront an Oscar-winning (1954) screenplay based on Mike Johnson’s undercover investigation of New York and New Jersey waterfront corruption for The New York Sun newspaper. Budd Schulberg, who won that Oscar, later adapted his screenplay for the stage; which is the play now being reviewed. It is quintessential American Century Theatre material.
The business of the American people is business, according to former President Herbert Hoover, a true believer in the American “laissez-faire” style of economy. But just because the government left business to its own devices did not mean that a substitute entity did not replace representative government; and the result was the organized crime mobs and families that dominated big city small business and infiltrated labor unions in the 20th century. The same laissez-faire model that made the rich richer left the poor and powerless subject to the brutality and injury of the criminal element that took over the docks. On the Waterfront just one illustration of the working class struggle for survival in an age when the cards were stacked against it and the threat of murder and mayhem kept honest people silent and in endless fear. The cost of doing the right thing was just too high.
Jack Powers (Terry Malloy) is burdened from the start by the immortal film portrayal of Terry Malloy by Marlon Brando. It would not be fair to review Powers’ performance against a silver screen immortality that can be run over and over again on 500 TV channels or streamed at convenience via the internet. Suffice it to say that Powers is a competent actor and good Fight Captain who gamely assumed the burden that any performer in this role would have to bear. He is pinky, pasty, sweet and baby-faced and this reviewer never felt his threat. No 30-year-old former fighter who has spent almost half his life as a stevedore and criminal enforcer looks so clean and wholesome. In fact, this is the immediate issue of the show. These men are all too clean and baby-faced and unravaged by a lifetime of offloading cargo from ships. These characters are wearing college campus threads and no one is smoking! The drinking is stage drinking for the temperate. These actors wouldn’t know how to throw whiskey back if Johnny Friendly (Bruce Alan Rauscher) called them “Shlagoom” every night. No cigarettes, no real looking booze, no rips, no patches and no sweat on a gang of stevedores. No coughing, no urinating against a wall and possibly only one hocked loogie. (Mr. Reviewer claims there was one loogie incident. Your reviewer didn’t see it but trusts her husband to know his spitting.) Try as they might, these very competent actors, were compromised by their Costumer and Props Designer. Your reviewer knew something was amiss when she found herself coveting Edie Doyle’s (Caitlin Shea) shoes and wanting to know where she bought them; and I promise my readers that I was not raised in a tenement near a dock. This was not Director Kathleen Akerley’s attempt at allegory; it was lack of due diligence in researching just who were the real inhabitants of the New York and New Jersey docks and how they lived and what they looked like. Not to mention that none of the characters spoke with any attempt at the dialect these people would have and still speak with today. Only Bruce Alan Rauscher as Johnny Friendly and Father Vince attempted that realism and it served to flesh out his characters. In the absence of dialect and era, the foul and vulgar language of the mid 20th century waterfront is no longer shocking to the ear as it can be heard any night on cable television.
However, all of the preceding having been said, this show is rescued by the actors. No, Jack Powers is no Marlon Brando, but he threw himself into his role as a bad man who finds his conscience and is redeemed by the love of a good woman (Caitlin Shea); the sister of the man he set up for murder. His fight choreography was very real and very well staged on such a compact set and your reviewer believed that these actors believed in their respective roles. Again, as is her habit, Akerley doubled up characters for these actors to play, usually simultaneously and left it to the audience to figure out why the murderer from two minutes ago is now another good guy. Cyle Durkee as Runty and Truck, simultaneously, was most adept at the job. Brandishing a switchblade Durkee could be Truck and without the knife he could be Runty all in one scene. Christopher C. Holbert, as both the good man Luke and the mob executioner Barney, had a more difficult time without a prop to brandish illustrating just which character he was. Nevertheless, Holbert was expressive and acquitted himself well in a role that had few lines. Graham Pilato, as the undercover reporter investigating the criminal element infesting the docks hides in plain sight and fears for his own life as tries to cover the lost lives of his subjects. His rubbery face reflects his different characters and his own ability to blend into the crowd as he makes his mental notes for publication. Tyler Herman so played so many parts, some simultaneously, that your reviewer is tuckered out from figuring out who he was at any given time in the play.
Bruce Alan Rauscher never fails to inhabit his roles. Your reviewer was his Producer in TACT’s Visit to a Small Planet, but he was cast before she assumed her duties and she had no input in his selection as Kreton. In this show Rauscher takes on the roles of the venal Johnny Friendly and the morally hesitant Father Vincent. In the former role he oozes malevolence as he asserts his dominion over the lives and misfortunes of the dockworkers and their families. He orders murder without conscience while at the same time assuring all he has only their best interests at heart. As Father Vince, Rauscher demonstrates both the substance and the gutlessness of a parish priest who got a bad break in assignments and just wants to be promoted when the priest above him moves on. Father Vince goes along to get along and he cannot convince the crusading Father Pete (Matt Dewberry) that Pete’s zeal for living in Christ will get his flock murdered before they can be redeemed through testimony at state hearings on organized crime. Father Pete’s fixation on the Crucifixion simile is both memorial and death sentence for Terry Malloy and his mob captain brother Charley (Christopher Herring). Terry martyrs himself by testifying before a state crime commission hearing. His incrimination of Johnny Friendly forces Friendly to leave the country but his departure does not relieve the inhabitants of the piers of their oppression. Ready replacements are lying in wait to take over Johnny’s operations in graft and corruption and shakedown. It will not be until 1968 when the United States enacts the RICO statutes that the real people who lived this story for undercover reporter Mike Johnson will find any relief from the threats controlling their lives. It is these actors who understand the cost for what they are portraying.
Director Kathleen Akerley does not care for realism in her productions, but picks and chooses her allegory without regard to the dissonance of the audience or the moral questions at hand. There is a well done and real waterfront (Scenic Designer Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden) placed in the black box theatre at Gunston Arts Center. But the pier is clean and not weathered, just like its denizens; yet the audience is assumed to believe in the grittiness of the dockworker life and accept real fear and conscience battering in the age of organized crime when the only actor to break a sweat is the priest (Matt Dewberry). The ensemble cast of pigeons was played by origami birds with pigeon cooing well-played by Sound Designer Neil McFadden. McFadden’s aural and acoustic murder of Runty is frightening and devastating. Akerley eschewed the popular music of the early 1950’s for modern-day tribal sounding percussion pieces to generate atmosphere and it worked in concert with Marianne Meadows’ moody lighting design to integrate the cast of characters into a tribe of dockworkers and their families surviving in the wilds of the piers. This is a very small world. The music design served to keep the focus on the actors and the story and expedited the scene changes which were efficient. As the body count increased Akerley’s clever method of disposal mimicked the efficiency of a real life mob hit or what would be described as such in pop culture.
Director Akerley was quoted in the Washington Post saying she did not see the iconic movie upon which this play is based. The film’s legend is grounded in the reality and grittiness of 1950’s film realism and her failure to see this film compromised her understanding of history. This presents a problem when the audience for the play lived through and remembers these same times. TACT’s audience is loyal to the company precisely because it remembers the times TACT’s program choices portray. In this case, Akerley’s result is a history rewritten for the very people who were there the first time around. In fact some of the audience may have been wearing the same garments they were wearing in 1954. This is not a criticism of Akerley. It is just a reminder that people live for a long time and they might like their good old days remembered without revision.
On the Waterfront is a play well worth catching at TACT, despite my quibbles here. The eternal story of conscience, loyalty and martyrdom still resonates in our contemporary times of moral ambivalence. This is The American Century Theatre mission.
If the person in the next seat suddenly had limited access to food, or got a text message (he is texting, right?) telling him he’d lost his job, who would he become? If, in the middle of the play, he were told he had to pay an additional fee for Act II but that any attempt to leave in protest would result in violence and, possibly, death, would be sure the impression you’d formed of him in the parking lot pre-show was still true?
Who are they when they’re comfortable? Whao are they when they’re threatened? Who would they be if they lived in a world with no real control over finding a path that includes both financial security and personal autonomy and self-actualization? And what if that’s where they live already?
On the Waterfront is famous for one man’s battle with his sense of self in a world that gave him lose-lose choices. He coulda been a contenda, after all, but what the whole story tells you is that maybe he would have been a contender and maybe he would have been fish food for refusing to throw the fight. The play, to me, is much more about all men: Everyone on stage is tasked with building a life in lose-lose circumstances. Even Johnny Friendly came from a huge, impoverished family. And living in a lose-lose world makes their identities tenuous: If it’s expedient, even apparently necessary, to be a killer, then the guy next to you could change who he is faster than the time it takes to turn his way.
— Kathleen Akerley, Director
Photos by Dennis Deloria
- Joey Doyle, Jimmie Conroy, Glover, Interrogator: Tyler Herman
- Moose, “J.P.” Morgan: Daniel Corey
- Truck, Runty: Cyle Durkee
- Tommy, Big Mac: William Hayes
- Luke, Barney: Christopher C. Holbert
- Reporter, Mutt, Bartender: Graham Pilato
- Terry Malloy: Jack Powers
- Charley “The Gent” Malloy: Christopher Herring
- Father Barry: Matt Dewberry
- Johnny Friendly, Father Vincent: Bruce Alan Rauscher
- Skins, Pop Doyle: Joe Cronin
- Edie Doyle: Caitlin Shea
- Director: Kathleen Akerley
- Assistant Director: Kristen Pilgrim
- Stage Manager: Sarah Conte
- Technical Director: Jonathan Hudspeth
- Scenic Design: Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden (USA)
- Costume Design: Alison Samantha Johnson
- Lighting Design: Marianne Meadows (USA)
- Sound Design: Neil McFadden
- Properties Design: Becca Dieffenbach
- Assistant Stage Manager/Board Operator: Todd Manley
- Master Carpenter: Jake Lunsford
- Fight Captain: Jack Powers
- House Manager: Joli Provost
- Marketing Manager: Emily Morrison
- Production Photography: Dennis Deloria, Johannes Markus
- Program and Graphic Design: Michael Sherman
Disclaimer: The American Century Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. The reviewer also worked for TACT in the past.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7869.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.