Ash Can Alley, Griffin Theatre Company. In turn-of-the-century America no art form was as influential or easily accessible as the newspaper comic strip. Three or four panels were enough to produce a reasonable slice of American culture, and a page of different strips could depict an entire society in miniature, juxtaposing family values with vaudeville humor and fantastic tales of adventure and romance.

In Ash Can Alley playwright William Massolia traces the birth of the comic strip back to fictional Chicago sketch artist Dickie Garege, who catches lightning in a bottle with his serialized depiction of lower-class virtues, “Ash Can Alley.” Massolia’s script isn’t that far removed from the truth; Chicago became a hotbed of comic art during Tribune owner Robert McCormick’s furious battle with rival publishers in the early 1900s.

More than a dry semihistorical account, Ash Can Alley is like a Sunday comics page blown up to its grossest extreme, full of screwball antics, wild lust, and incredibly black humor. Gaudy, outlandish designs reproduce a comic strip’s look, while fine ensemble work brings the script to life in vivid, vicious detail. Most impressive, though, is Massolia’s willingness to question the taboos and political doctrines that overshadowed the comic strip in the early part of the century–like the finest of newspaper strips, Ash Can Alley is as subversive as it is entertaining. –Nick Green