nytheatre.com review by David Koteles
August 16, 2006
Life wasn't all tea and crumpets, it seems, for many Londoners in the decade that followed "the War." Rationing continued until 1954, and poverty was rampant throughout the city. This was a gritty missing link of time rarely captured by popular culture—sandwiched between the days of brave-faced music hall goers enduring the Blitz and the mod Twiggy days of Carnaby Street. It's this black-market era, which gave birth to the infamous Kray brothers and scores of would-be hoodlums, that British playwright Moby Pomerance examines in his noir play about the underbelly of East End London street life.
Broken Hands tells the story of two brothers—George, the smart, scheming one, and Mick, the quiet, slow, featherweight boxer one who is easily manipulated; down on their luck, these two guys need to do whatever it takes to survive. (Think of George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men.) The play opens with the death of George, and then in a nonlinear and, unfortunately, all-too-often incomprehensible way, the elements fall into place as to what happened to dangerous George.
How and why George died isn't really that interesting, as this isn't necessarily a plot-driven play, it's more of a character study. Admirably, Pomerance writes a noir piece that's not the same old formula you expect in this genre; he doesn't set out to dazzle with unexpected plot twists, but rather offers a handful of richly drawn characters with complexities woven to the bone. It's one of those plays actors just love to be in: they can chew the scenery with desperate, greedy, angry characters. Those plays are often less enjoyable for the audience, and this production's not much of an exception. As directed by Marc Weitz, the actors thankfully find the moment-by-moment honesty in these characters, however long it takes. And they do hit their marks, yes; there are several moments to savor fine acting. What's missing here is pace: the speed, the life, and the humor that this production so urgently needs to be truly buoyant and alive.
Despite any misgivings I had about this piece, I still enjoyed the performances of the talented actors—each marvelously cast in his role. Tom Souhrada, Chuck Bradley, and Constance Zaytoun all give interesting, layered performances in lusty portrayals of seediness. Cory Grant portrays Mick—solemn, underestimated, and haunted by demons—with such subtlety that you wish he'd open up more. Grant's controlled performance is just below the surface and his face twitches with character, and frankly, in the noir lighting, his nuance is often lost in the shadows.
But the play belongs to Eric Miller with his smooth, charismatic, and sexy portrait of George. Miller, with relatively few New York credits, has the chops to carry the play and, as George would, steals it away from the others with a bright, toothy performance. Obviously these performances can only happen under the hands of a capable director, and Weitz does a good job interpreting the tricky text and filling the space.
Elizabeth Bagget does a nice job with costumes, although they better serve the characters, perhaps, than history. Jay Ryan (lights and set design) does his best to keep the play as shadowy as possible and still let us see most of what's happening. And hats off to the props person, Andi Cohen, who nabbed a motorcycle!
A gun, a bridge, a beautiful girl, a debt and a scam... If British noir with a twist is your cup of tea, it'll be runneth over with this period character study.