nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 13, 2005
There is a lot to like about Slag Heap, anton dudley’s new dramedy about British prostitutes. Namely, that it takes a sympathetic stance toward the oldest profession. dudley tempers Slag Heap with humor, wry observations, and likable protagonists. His whole take on the subject is refreshingly humane, even when he makes Slag Heap unnecessarily serious. Such instances nearly sink the script, but dudley has the good fortune of having some first-rate performances and crisp direction to bail him out.
Dave is a young Manchester lad who dreams of the London high life. But, in his current situation—living on the street, and tricking himself out to the locals in a public restroom—such a life seems unattainable. Fran, another local pro (and Dave’s high school girlfriend), is already living large: she has a flat of her own, and business cards for repeat customers. One night, when the two of them team up for a lucrative threesome in the back of a stretch limo, Dave finds the impetus to make his dreams a reality (i.e., he really can make big money after all), and shortly thereafter moves to London. It’s not long before he’s joined there by Fran, who gets herself into a spot of trouble back home in Manchester, and needs to get out of town.
What could seem like potentially distasteful subject matter is made humorous by dudley’s empathetic take on it. In the first act, he inserts little pieces of information that serve the dual purpose of developing character and illuminating a subculture. Dave’s best friend, Ashley, lets drop one such tidbit when she says that postal workers are “right cheap” when it comes to paying. Dave later reveals that he smokes menthol cigarettes to keep his breath fresh: “That way you don’t have to brush your teeth." In another scene, Dave and Ashley casually hang out at the laundromat in their underwear while they wash their clothes. All three instances display the characters’ sense of humor and their survival instincts. Both Dave and Ashley are homeless, and their biggest long-term goal—rarely achieved—is to make enough money each day for a hotel room that night.
dudley introduces more humor in the form of Fran’s sister and roommate, Donna. She’s a layabout with a taste for drugs and booze—so much so that she has long since stopped going to work, and nested on the living room couch. She has everything she needs: food, television, even the necessary tools to shave her legs with. She also has a potty mouth and the will to use it, especially when talking about how she’d like to corrupt the local underage take-out delivery boy. Such a lack of inhibition makes for good laughs, as more audience members' jaws drop with every word that comes out of Donna’s mouth. That is, until Donna decides to act on her impulses and lure the delivery boy over. Which is precisely where Slag Heap starts getting into trouble.
When the delivery boy arrives at Fran and Donna’s flat, late in Act I, Slag Heap takes a sudden and unexpected turn towards the serious—one that is not completely earned. Nothing that has happened so far indicates that Slag Heap will turn so... well, heavy. It’s surprising, and a bit disappointing. dudley’s approach to his subject and characters has been so unconventional up to that point that it seems like a bit of a cop-out to include some conventional crisis. I assume that he is trying to inject some moral gravitas here (as if he suddenly realizes that he’s writing a play about prostitutes, and siding with them), but the shift in tone rings false. The outcome of Donna’s jailbait tryst also serves as a plot device to get Fran down to London, and it feels like dudley could have come up with a better one. (Wouldn't the fact that she just wants to leave Manchester—an economically depressed town—for somewhere a little more financially stable have been good enough?)
Consequently, Act II—in which Dave falls into a clubgoer’s hazy spiral of sex, drugs, and deviance, and Fran decides to build a new life for herself in London—is mostly serious. The two acts—which both work well independently of each other—feel like two different plays, strung together only by common protagonists. And, once again, dudley heaps another deus ex machina-type tragedy upon Fran near the end, just as she is planning her escape from prostitution (one which I will not reveal here). It’s as if dudley isn’t listening to his own play telling him where it wants to go. He doesn’t seem to trust it completely, which is a shame because he ought to. Overall, though, Slag Heap is a good debut for dudley, and makes one eager to see where his writing will go from here.
Michael Morris’s sharp direction works wonders with these troublesome sections of the play, diving right into them fully instead of shying away half-heartedly. Such investment helps create fluid transitions and make the production feel like a seamless whole. He also gets terrific performances out of the cast. Vincent Kartheiser is right on target as Dave, making him an endearing blend of naivete and self-centeredness. As Fran, Brienan Nequa Bryant convincingly navigates her character’s journey from tough-as-nails slag to fragile naif with aplomb. Polly Lee has a ball with Ashley’s bluntness and dry, deadpan humor. And Janelle Anne Robinson steals the show with her exuberant performance as Donna. Alexander Flores and Maggie Moore also turn in good work, respectively, as Darwin the delivery boy, and Natalie, the Eurotrash photographer who gives Dave and Fran some work in London. Despite each of their character’s respective drawbacks, the actors find things to like in these people, and they make the audience like them, too.