Sugar Down, Billie Hoak

Trap Door Theatre

By Albert Williams

Ensconced in an old garage behind Jane’s restaurant in Bucktown, the feisty little Trap Door Theatre doesn’t have a bathroom; patrons and performers alike must use the restaurant facilities or make do with the alley behind the building. So there’s a certain irony in the impressive verisimilitude of the set for the company’s superb new show, Sugar Down, Billie Hoak. Stretching the concept of stage realism from kitchen sink to toilet bowl, director-designer Michael S. Pieper has turned the small stage into a grimy men’s room in the New York subway, complete with dysfunctional towel dispenser, broken mirror, stopped-up urinal, and “faggot hole” in the stall divider for oral sex.

Illuminated by overhead lamps and the flashing lights of trains occasionally rumbling past (a remarkable effect created by lighting designer Richard Norwood and sound designer Bob Rokos, who also appears as a street musician using a rubber pail as a drum), this littered lavatory is the last-ditch fortress of two would-be drug dealers–teenage half brothers named Duke and Boogie. In a foolhardy attempt to set themselves up in business, these two reckless losers have stolen a bag of “Billie Hoak”–nearly pure cocaine, which they can “sugar down” to sell on the street–from a pusher for whom they sometimes do errands. But once alone in their restroom retreat, the boys realize that powder this pure must belong to a big-league candy man who will surely exact a vicious revenge unless they make amends. Complicating the situation is the fact that the apparently abandoned bathroom is in fact the makeshift habitat of a grizzled, homeless ex-con–a Bible-spouting bum called Street, whose fits of apparent dementia mask a malevolent will: he may be more dangerous than the gangster of whom Duke and Boogie have run afoul.

This is the setup for New York playwright Brian Silberman’s drama, receiving its midwest premiere. This stunningly acted production matches the documentary-style naturalism of last season’s Trap Door triumph The Boys of the Peggy August Club, though it surpasses that show in gut-grabbing, heart-wrenching intensity. Starting out like a drug melodrama, Sugar Down, Billie Hoak soon spirals into something very like Greek tragedy–specifically, Oedipus Rex. Even graver than the threats posed by Duke and Boogie’s two antagonists–the never seen drug lord and the all too present Street–is a set of terrible secrets stemming from the brothers’ boyhood with their emotionally disturbed father, a Vietnam veteran whose mysterious suicide left his sons ill prepared to survive on their own.

Duke, the elder youth, has been forced by his dad’s death to take on the role of protector for the mentally handicapped Boogie, who worships his half brother while living in fear that Duke will abandon him. This terror prompts Boogie to deceive Duke about certain things–among them the truth concerning their father’s death. But when the eerie Street disrupts the tenuous balance in the siblings’ relationship, becoming a surrogate father, the long suppressed facts come spilling out with horrific inevitability–and consequences.

Silberman’s portrait of New York lowlifes, grittily explicit in its depiction of sex and drugs (the onstage action includes simulations of shooting up and anal rape), recalls the works of other youthful writers who have plumbed these depths–among them Sam Shepard’s quasi-mythic passion plays, David Mamet’s studies of doomed schemers, and Eric Bogosian’s raunchy rock ‘n’ roll monologues. The seriocomic banter between the two young losers is reminiscent of the interplay between the brothers in Lyle Kessler’s Orphans and the Times Square hustlers in 40 Deuce, whose author Alan Bowne might well have become as significant as Shepard, Mamet, and Bogosian had AIDS not cut his life short. And the dynamic of dependency between Duke and Boogie suggests John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as a key influence (“I ain’t no fuckin’ re-tard,” Boogie declares. “I’m just slow”). But Silberman’s strong dialogue and unsentimental empathy with his characters mark him as a promising artist with his own identity; and a writer capable of concocting a potent, challenging actors’ showpiece like this has a bright future no matter how dark his material.

Trap Door, edgy and ambitious even when it falls on its face, here stands proud on the strength of three riveting performances, which combine ferocious visceral power with impressive craft and discipline. David Coleman’s muscular, frantic Duke and Danny Belrose’s antic, anxious Boogie are an unforgettable pair–violently roughhousing in brotherly competition, strutting with adolescent bravado, and finally huddling in a Pieta-like clinch to dream of a better life even as they face death. Rob Skrocki plays Street with a raspy, raunchy forcefulness that’s rare among middle-aged actors hereabouts (veteran theatergoers will be reminded of onetime off-Loop mainstay Jack Wallace). Particularly impressive in its range is Belrose’s performance. He’s required to writhe about the stage in drug-induced ecstasy and agony, sprawl bareass over a toilet seat as he submits to a ritual reenactment of childhood sexual abuse, and finally sit in sobbing stillness as he pours out his cathartic confession. Yet as extreme as the action gets, Belrose finds a subtly different dynamic for each sequence; every inflection is pitch perfect, every word crystal clear.

This powerhouse production recalls the heady days of Chicago theater in the 70s and 80s, when shows such as True West, The Tooth of Crime, and Orphans featured intensely physical performances by the young members of Steppenwolf and Remains. Only time will tell, of course, whether Trap Door’s actors have the sticking power of the likes of John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, William Petersen, and Gary Cole. But there’s no question that Sugar Down, Billie Hoak delivers the goods for here and now, pure and uncut.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Mary Flipkowski.