KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 29, 1999
By now, we’ve all had a bellyful of American mobsters… their contorted faces looming ominously on the small and large screen. Mafiosi with their Noo Yawk accents, their molls, their mothers and their murderous machinations. Now, we meet their transcontinental counterparts. The London underworld is the setting of the brutal and brutally funny “Gangster No. 1,” a linguistically cutthroat first play by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, opening the Fritz Theater’s new season of offbeat offerings.
Fritz artistic director Bryan Bevell mounted a staged reading for the Actors Alliance earlier this year. With no props or sets and little physical action, the production chilled the audience, leaving them spellbound and speechless. Like a timeless Greek drama, the play’s ferocity is in the language. By drawing on the viewers’ imagination, Bevell underscored the barbarity without showing any violence. If only Hollywood would get the message: the best special effects occur in the mind. In this full production, Bevell wisely hasn’t added too much to his staged reading, keeping it simple, maintaining a separate, spot-lit playing space for each of the five characters. There’s minimal interaction in the script, which primarily comprises a series of confessions and condemnations, graphic descriptions of ferocious acts, and a few tender moments of love.
At the center of it all is a character we know only as the Gangster, telling a tale that spans three decades, cajoling the onlookers at first, and later, as he descends into a hallucinatory, guilt-ridden madness, threatening to kill each and every one of us. Both his ascent and descent are motivated by envy and greed. He looks scornfully at the wealth, power, insouciance and apparent sex appeal of his rival, Freddie. The ruthless competition results in Freddie’s taking the rap for the Gangster’s most maniacal murder, serving a couple of decades in prison. While he’s away, the Gangster rises to the top of his game, making big bucks and big hauls, branching out from theft to drugs, with plenty of killing tossed in whenever there’s a threat to his position.
But then, when Freddie emerges — a changed man, calm, centered, having earned a college degree and the heart of his murdered fiancée’s roommate — it tips the Gangster over the edge. Interspersed with these lethal ramblings are appearances by a cop on the take, aptly named Bent Copper, and the cabaret-dancer Mel, who was always taken with Freddie, even when her roommate was engaged to him.
Despite the non-linear structure — the interior monologues, the nightmares and recriminations — the play flows logically to its conclusion. In this bone-chilling production, the direction is outstanding in its understatement, and the cast is impeccable.
In reprising his role as the Gangster, Ron Choularton is nothing short of miraculous — moments of humor, playfulness or nonchalance abruptly alternating with crazed, bloodthirsty glee or terrifying, homicidal rage. As Freddie, Gerard Maxwell puts in his strongest performance ever. After 20 Fritz Theater appearances, Maxwell is finally given something meaty to chew on, and he tears into the role with relish. Nick Berry has a perpetual sneer and a nervous edge as the two-bit thug, Eddie. Jeff Anthony Miller perfectly conveys the disgust and remorse of a policeman so haunted by the grotesque result of the Gangster’s gory work that he loses his family and children. Jillian Frost lends a bit of relief and feminine warmth as the naive, faithful and ever-hopeful Mel.
Call it a rotting slice of life, a look at the slime on the underbelly of society. It’s wicked work, but someone always insists on doing it. And though hate ultimately consumes some characters in this tightly wrapped play, guilt overtakes others and love even triumphs at the end. This certainly isn’t one for the kids, but it’s a knockout for strong-stomached adults.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.