Stage Actoring Studio

at Puszh Studios

Bad audiences can kill great plays. I don’t know if a theater crowd ever pissed me off more than the opening-night throng that guffawed through Stage Actoring Studio’s production of Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody. When laughter erupted during descriptions of sexual molestation and suicide, I couldn’t help wondering–are these guys drunk? Merely inconsiderate? Doesn’t Puszh Studios have any soundproof booths? Or bouncers?

It’s easy to shrug off the tittering as mere stupidity, but Stage Actoring Studio must share the blame. Despite some absolutely riveting performances, a killer script, and top-notch barebones set design, the production fails to convey the weight of Gordone’s drama.

There’s no difficulty figuring out what’s right about this production. Rarely, performed these days, Gordone’s 1969 No Place to Be Somebody is an exciting mixture of sublime poetry, rough urban dialogue, and a wickedly engrossing plot. It perfectly conjures the atmosphere of Johnny’s Bar, the south-side Chicago dive where small-time hood Johnny Williams runs rackets and a prostitution ring while scheming to form his own black Mafia.

Johnny’s Bar is an eerily realistic wrong-side-of-the-tracks Cheers populated by lowlifes, drunks, and dreamers all looking for a way out of the slums. Here jive-talkin’ white drummer Shanty Mulligan pals around with lonely hospital worker Cora Beasley. Unemployed alcoholic actor Gabe Gabriel commiserates with unemployed dancer Melvin Smeltz. Boss man Johnny runs roughshod over the lives of his sex workers, while he eagerly awaits the release from prison of his longtime partner Sweets Crane.

The play unfolds with the cruel logic of 40s film noir as the bar’s denizens veer toward crime and violence before crashing into grim disaster. Johnny is a magnificent character–a cynical Humphrey Bogart from hell, sticking his neck out for no man, using his trusted friends to get revenge on the white system that has excluded him. The superb Stephan Turner plays Johnny to the hilt with a defiant, prowling, leopardlike swagger; you just can’t keep your eyes off his blazingly intense performance.

Turner carries much of the show, but good performances abound in this production. As Gabe Gabriel, the actor whose light skin has robbed him of the opportunity to play stock black villains, Al Boswell is eerily captivating. He perfectly combines a bitter world-weary man and a prophetic Jesus-gonna-gitcha preacher. Kenneth Johnson brings an otherworldly, almost angelic sensibility to the “reformed” Sweets Crane, who still steals but only for fun, not profit. Even Tammy Berk as Mary Lou Bolton, a lily-white liberal, manages some deeply sympathetic moments in an unrealistically submissive role.

So what’s the problem? It’s not the key performers, who act their asses off. It’s not the set: with its antique cash register, red-and-white checked tablecloths, and eight-track jukebox, it perfectly captures the gritty, lowdown mood. The lighting, however, might have something to do with it: Puszh Studios is saddled with antiquated point-the-tin-cans and twirl-the-dimmer-knobs technology, and so the acting space and audience are sometimes bathed in an irritatingly bright glare. Such incandescence, helpful for reading the program and glowering at laughing drunks, detracts from the play’s mood of darkness.

Then there are the supporting players–some of whom are not up to the difficulty of their parts. Others display ruinously inappropriate acting styles. John Creighton sure looks the part of hipster Shanty Mulligan, but his absurd Elmer Fudd-esque stammering in moments of violent emotion turns drama into comedy. Maureen Gallagher as pathetic prostitute Dee Jacobson makes a noble effort, but she seems miscast–too bourgeois to be convincing. Dan Barcelona as a blackmailing Italian hood doesn’t show up in very many scenes, but when he does he somehow manages to ruin the deftly crafted mood of solemnity. Employing a 40s goon style of speaking (“Hay–whacha dooin’ dere, Cholly?”), Barcelona is about as threatening as an irate Maxwell Smart. Corrupt judge Bolton receives a thuddingly weak and wooden reading at the hands of Bob Maram, who seems more Sid Caesar than Little Caesar. And Scott Turner’s on-the-take sergeant seems to have wandered in off the set of a bad TV cop show. You half expect him to shout, “Freeze, punk! FBI.”

Finally, one of the show’s most important aspects–the violence–is inadequately directed. Punches and slaps fall wide of their marks, and the rough-and-tumble world of gunfire and knife play seems beyond director David Mason’s grasp. When one character draws a butcher knife, another pulls a gun, and the audience bursts into laughter, you’ve got problems.

Still, I’d recommend the show for the power of its script and the intensity of some of its performances. Maybe the soused riffraff will have gone home. Maybe you could bring along a soundproof booth.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamar Berk.