For his inaugural production as Center Theatre Group's artistic director, Michael Ritchie enlisted director Nicholas Martin to remount his epic-scaled vision of this Depression-era classic, as previously staged in Williamstown and Boston. Sidney Kingsley's 1933 Broadway drama, adapted into an Oscar-nominated 1937 film, was a cutting-edge social-protest treatise for its time. It would seem a watershed drama exploring the tragic ramifications of urban poverty would find resonance in an era in which the problem remains unresolved. Though Ritchie wisely chose a debut offering that breaks the Ahmanson formula and one whose design artistry is astonishing, the effort isn't as dramatically stirring as expected. Still, Martin's breathtakingly picturesque staging and his skillful work with a 42-member ensemble—bolstered by several exceptional performances—result in an enjoyable entertainment.
The primary drawback is that the story and dialogue are sadly out of date, and no amount of expensive effects can completely compensate—least of all the much-ballyhooed swimming pool in the orchestra pit, meant to simulate the East River but coming across more like a theme-park ride, soaking front-row spectators. Kingsley's subplots and character vignettes amble along, skirting narrative coherency. Set in a New York neighborhood in which slum houses and luxurious high-rises exist side-by-side, the central story thread involves the return of former street punk and now gangster-on-the-lam Baby-Face Martin (Jeremy Sisto) to his slum turf. He arrives with a plastic surgery makeover and hopes to reconnect with his bitter mother (Joyce Van Patten) and ex-amour, Francey (sensitively played by Pamela Gray). A slang-speaking clique of tough street kids dives into the orchestra pit, wrestles around, teases one another, and gets into big trouble.
The standout performance is Sisto's thoughtful take on an iconic Humphrey Bogart role; Sisto's thug isn't so much a murderous sociopath as a lost-boy– turned–lost-man, finding that arrogance and callousness can't forever ward off regrets. In a brief but explosive scene, Van Patten elicits more truthful, shattering emotion than some actors can muster with pages of dialogue. Tom Everett Scott gives a creditable performance as an unemployed architect in love with a "kept" woman (Sarah Hudnut), Benjamin Platt is superb as a pampered rich kid, and Kathryn Hahn has fine moments as the protective sister of street thug Tommy (the impressive Ricky Ullman). The young actors playing the band of punks yield credible results.
James Noone's majestic set has an operatic feel, Kenneth Posner's lighting is gorgeously rendered, Michael Krass' costumes are on-target, and Mark Bennett's original music adds greatly to the period feel. More like a widescreen Technicolor epic than a gritty 1930s black-and-white B-picture, Ritchie's maiden offering seems geared to pleasing the masses—and probably will.
"Dead End," presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Also Sun. 7:30 p.m. Sep. 4-25; Thu. 2 p.m. Sep. 29-Oct. 13. (Dark Sun. 2 p.m. Sep. 4 & Wed. 8 p.m. Oct. 5.) Sep. 7-Oct. 16. $15-75. (213) 628-2772.