Apple Tree Theatre

The scene is Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. All the students are boys–tough, ethnic, streetwise, quick to use a nasty word in a run-on sentence. They struggle in a whirlpool of domestic violence, drugs, and painstakingly choreographed rap music. Dropout rates are high. Nobody has a job–except the young, idealistic white teachers, that is, who though they could have gone to law school chose to save these young Negroes and Hispanics from themselves. But all too often the boys fall prey to the streets, and crazy old Father Larkin must perform another funeral, rage against the almighty absentee landlord, and demand of the audience, “Where the fuck were you when he was dying?”

Me? I was in the second row for two and a half fucking hours while actors bellowed and spit at each other, repeatedly assaulted by sound effects including gunshots, a fire-alarm bell, and something that sounded like an amplified door slam. What is this, theater for the nearly deaf?

So, suffer along with me now as we follow the story of Lee, a sensitive kid who serves as the family punching bag. Tragic. But the young, idealistic teacher Tom Griffin has other plans for him. Griffin takes Lee under his wing–into his apartment, home for Thanksgiving–and generally plays surrogate father. This increases Lee’s angst by making his home life seem all the bleaker by comparison. In the end, Lee gets shot by his brother, Tyrone, only minutes before graduating high school. Enter blasphemous old Father Larkin, the Captain Ahab of the Lower East Side, to perform yet another funeral.

Under Gary Griffin’s direction, the pace is at once furious and rhythmically monotonous. Actors pounce on their cues like they were playing thumper. Your turn, my turn, your turn . . . This gets bizarre during the artsier scenes–like when Lee plays himself, his brother, and his mom. Sometimes, too, the whole cast chants in chorus, repeating lines of alleged importance. Periodic explosions from frustrated teachers and temperamental students punctuate the clatter. The overall effect is as relentless as a garbage truck backing down the alley on a Sunday morning.

The acting is soap-opera caliber. Teenagers sulk. Teachers wrinkle their foreheads and try to understand. And gnarly old Father Larkin (Jack McLaughlin-Gray) minds his flock with a steely eye and a heart of gold. The only actor worth noting is Gary DeWitt Marshall, who plays Henry Rodriguez, a black Hispanic burglar and drug dealer but basically a good kid who fell in with the wrong crowd. Right. Anyway, Marshall is subtly distinguished by a certain range of human expression, a talent elusive to the rest of the cast, who seem to have studied at the Jack Klugman school of acting.

There are two layers to this bologna sandwich. The layer that’s supposed to stick to the roof of your mouth is the plea to save the children. The other layer is the usual filler of social problems–domestic violence, poverty, drugs, the single-parent matriarchal family–with the implication that all that’s wanted is a little paternal discipline and a high school education. Dan Quayle would love this play. Personally I think these themes were handled better and far more concisely in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke!” in West Side Story.

Perhaps playwright Bill Cain surmised, in a fleeting moment of insecurity, that he had nothing to offer that hadn’t been explored in more depth on Welcome Back, Kotter. That would explain why he’s vulgarized the dialogue in a desperate attempt to reflect the gritty reality of the inner city. For instance:

Tyrone: Fuck you.

Griffin: Fuck you.

Tyrone: Fuck you.

Griffin: Fuck you.

“Never let the student set the tone of the conversation,” quips crusty old Father Larkin. Intense, huh? Just the sort of thing you might try to pass off on a suburban audience as a black comedy. The word is bogus.