Behold The Bowery!
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 8, 2008
Life in turn-of-the-century Lower Manhattan must have been rough, dirty, and hard, but from historical accounts and films like Gangs of New York, we can imagine the electric, anarchic energy its ethnically diverse, hungry, and ambitious population must have experienced. The Attic Theatre's original drama-with-music Behold, The Bowery! attempts to capture the feeling and pulse of this time. Written and directed by Daniel Pfau and performed by a large cast, many of whom are recent NYU graduates, the production has ambition and youthful grit worthy of its subject matter. Pfau writes with a knack for colorful dialogue and unapologetically embraces a blood-and-thunder tale of Gotham lowlifes. When Julian, a failing actor and con-man, tries to grift gangster Dead Horse Driscoll, he stumbles into a dangerous quagmire. Meanwhile, impoverished Polish immigrant Leon is so desperate to feed his wife and child he takes on a dirty job for Driscoll and reluctantly gets pulled into the underworld. As these men's fates intertwine, we journey through old New York, meeting Irish cops, Jews, prostitutes, thugs, all struggling to survive in the urban jungle. There will, of course, be blood, but Pfau opts for a hopeful ending that, while perhaps too neat, is consistent with the old-fashioned story he's telling.
You can sense the cinematic vision that is driving this project, and I wanted Pfau and his team to transport me into this fascinating world. But at its first performance, the production wasn't as brash and bold as it might be. Pfau's play is more concerned with the sociology of its epoch than the psychology, and to this end, the instinct for theatrical spectacle is right on target. The use of vaudevillian interludes, musical numbers (also composed by Pfau), and an ironic MC (Matthew Hanson) narrating the proceedings contribute the most dynamic elements of the production. Hanson's appearances bring a welcome theatrical wattage to the stage, displaying a style and showmanship that bring the material to life. I wish Pfau could raise the rest of the ensemble to this heightened level.
The characters tend towards types: bloodthirsty gangster, suffering immigrant, dashing cad. If all the performers embraced and embodied these iconic figures, it would all be much more fun. Instead, a low-key naturalism trumps the theatrical, and Pfau allows many of the actors to slouch in a casual, contemporary, kitchen sink—wait, make that tenement-sink—acting style that keeps the stakes low. At the first performance, few of the principals besides Hanson and Daniel Abeles were taking ownership of their roles. Abeles' incorrigible charm and leading man looks work well for the roguish Julian. As master criminal Dead Horse, I wanted to see Einar Gunn rule the stage—and chew the scenery—more and internalize less. Tomasso Matelli conveys the quiet, brooding Leon so subtly that the big stage of the Connelly Theatre swallows most of his performance. The remaining 12 actors are game but tentative. In his directorial capacity, Pfau could have made much more dynamic use of his ensemble to create the atmosphere of his play.Able music accompaniment is provided by Joe Hartmann, Alexander M. Vollrath-Smith, and Jeremy Pfau. Costume designers Caitlin Baird and Nicole Spiezio do a commendable job giving a sense of the period for a wide range of characters; Andrew Neisler's set consists of heavy wood pieces that evoke an earlier time but don't encourage a sense of movement or interesting stage pictures. Lighting designer Jenny Beth Snyder is limited to a much sparser light plot than this big a show requires. Certainly it's an admirable challenge to attempt a large-scale spectacle within the restricted producing conditions of FringeNYC, but a little more energy across the board would go a long way to help the show live as vibrantly as the world it portrays.