THE LOWER DEPTHS, Shattered Globe Theatre, at Victory Gardens Theater. Maksim Gorky’s 1902 play about the down-and-out denizens of a Russian flophouse is a seminal work of modern theater. More angry than Ibsen, more fiery than Strindberg, more naturalistic than his mentor Chekhov, Gorky devises moments of breathtaking, almost cinematic realism, as when the action decays into a cacophony of overlapping fragmented conversations in the play’s virtuoso first act.
But in the hands of the sincere, talented Shattered Globe folks, this work becomes a mere acting exercise. True, director Louis Contey proves adept at re-creating the chaotic surface of Gorky’s work, and sections of the play are delightful. But over the course of the evening the company’s focus on technique becomes a trap. Part of the problem is that today Gorky’s intense hyperrealism is a commonplace, borrowed over the years by dozens of talented and not-so-talented playwrights, filmmakers, and arty TV people, from Lanford Wilson in Balm in Gilead to the creators of Hill Street Blues.
To make this work catch fire one must recapture the teeth-gritting, socially conscious intensity Stanislavsky reportedly put into the play when he premiered it at the Moscow Art Theatre. But watching the losers in The Lower Depths drink and fight and belch their way across the stage here, one never gets the sense that these pitiable castoffs of a cruel, profit-driven society might relate to our own lives in any way. Nor does anyone in this production, not even the usually superb Steve Key, manage to communicate the full hopeless horror of these people’s lives.