Open City Theatre

at the Synergy Center

It took me three hours to read a two-paragraph passage in Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries. The passage was about Carroll and his buddy getting caught in the act of shooting up heroin and having to run through the city, one of them with a needle still sticking in his arm. Each sentence repulsed me more than the next, but I couldn’t just skip ahead to an easier section. The horrific truth that Carroll evoked was as captivating as it was disgusting.

Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm rings with the same compelling ugliness. Like Carroll, Algren neither romanticizes nor condemns his junkie hero or his street characters, but rather tells their story simply and compassionately.

The Man With the Golden Arm, adapted for the stage by Jack Kirkland, first opened in New York in 1956, six months after Otto Preminger’s film version of the book was released. Unlike the film, the stage version adheres to Algren’s poignant and unhappy ending, which elevates the piece to the status of a classic tragedy in spite of its degraded characters. Algren’s hero may be a down-and-out junkie, but he’s also a noble man, the kind street legends are made of.

The Man With the Golden Arm is mainly the story of Frankie, who comes home to the Division Street ghetto from World War II with a Purple Heart and a drug addition. On the streets he’s known as Frankie Machine, a man of legendary precision with a deck of cards. Like all the characters in the play, Frankie is cursed with a wretched life in a brutal environment. Algren’s Division Street of 1946 is a Polish American ghetto, where, he wrote, people lead “tortured, useless, lightless and loveless lives.” Still, Frankie is generous to his friends with whatever he has, and he tries to take care of people as best he can. He has a sweet, loving mistress, but he can’t find the strength to leave his nagging, wheelchair-bound wife, who constantly accuses him of crippling her (he may or may not have been responsible, according to talk on the street). His best friend is a petty thief, and Frankie himself makes his living dealing cards for a small-time gangster. He dreams of moving up and out, and his ticket, he thinks, is playing the drums for a big band. But Frankie’s hopes are soon dashed. He becomes a slave to his pusher, and eventually his frustration and addiction drive him to commit murder. From there things only get worse.

Open City Theatre’s production of The Man With the Golden Arm contains both flashes of brilliance and moments of boredom. Overall the ensemble does solid work. Though the set doesn’t quite capture the necessary squalidness, the cast are convincing as people trapped in a brutal world with little hope of escape. Set designers John Kastholm and Steve Munro use the tiny stage well, creating depth and levels that allow Munro as director to use every nook and cranny, even the audience area, to create different neighborhood locations. Munro brings out both the humor and the pathos of the piece, juxtaposing hilarious scenes of drunken betrayal with some nauseatingly realistic vignettes of people shooting up. The neon girl that hovers over the stark, wood-frame stage adds authenticity and character.

Most of the actors do a marvelous job of portraying the quirkiness and intensity of life under the gun. Patrick McCartney as Frankie’s buddy, the petty thief Sparrow, is astounding from his first moment onstage, creating a character that is as ingenuous as he is mouthy and as loyal as he is useless. McCartney’s Sparrow is a sort of cross between Chico Marx, Art Carney, and cheap thug extraordinaire Elisha Cook Jr. (if you can imagine that). As hilarious as he is, his moments of despair are the most poignant in the show. Bruno Oliver as Frankie lacks McCartney’s passion and conviction, but he grows on you. As Frankie sinks deeper and deeper into the abyss, Oliver comes into his own, maintaining an endearing sweetness while he scratches and jerks his way to the depths of junkiehood. This sweetness magnifies the horror of his climactic, emotionally abusive scene with Sparrow.

Neither of the lead women matches the energy of the men. Erica Tobolski is competent as Frankie’s nagging alcoholic wife Sophie, but neither Sophie’s inherent insanity nor her past as a spoiled and arrogant belle of the ball comes through in Tobolski’s performance. Juliet Cella’s Molly-O, Frankie’s mistress, doesn’t ring true. Though Molly-O’s supposedly madly in love with Frankie, Cella seems to dislike him. She shrinks from his touch and pleads with him in flat, unemotional tones.

It’s the depth of the secondary roles that gives this production life. Many of them are double cast (with actors rotating performances). Don Darnell is absolutely terrifying as Louie the Fixer. He combines raw, nasty power with the seductiveness of a man who recognizes weakness and how to exploit it. Also marvelous are Lawrence Grimm’s filthy, amoral Blind Piggy, Deane Clark’s no-nonsense survivor Antek the bartender, and Kelly Engh Holden as the promiscuous neighbor Vi. Like McCartney, Holden succeeds with both comedy and pathos; her Vi is a lively spirit that the streets can’t beat down. Randy Rozler also does a fine job as police captain Bednar (a role double cast with John Kastholm), using the flat inflections of 40s detective movies. And Tom Mladic brings a decency to the gangster Schwiefka (double cast with Rozler). But it is Lisa Sauber who makes the most of her one-scene, no-lines role as a stripteaser; the epitome of the bored hooker, she steals the scene with half- naked nonchalance, making it delightfully clear that she’s only in it for the money.

Open City’s Division Street is full of colorful characters, but it lacks the filth and degradation of Algren’s Chicago. The sound and light designs actually detracted from the set, though the many flubbed cues might have made things worse than usual. Many subtleties of the text are left unexplored–the possible sexual tension between Frankie and Sparrow, the confusion as to whether Sophie is crazy or not (Tobolski’s Sophie is obviously faking her illness). But the talented ensemble creates a show that is always intriguing and often delightful.