The Melting Pot

Is it possible to save another human being from himself? Are the exhortations of politicians, sociologists and religious types the best answers to the problems plaguing the three downtrodden New Yorkers in William Hanley's play Slow Dance on the Killing Ground? Or is it more likely that, as one character ultimately declares, "Nobody saves nobody"?

Hanley's impassioned, symbol-laden drama, which premiered on Broadway only days after Great Society architect Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory over conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, is now being presented at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center by Denver's Shadow Theatre Company. And despite a few staging problems, director Jeffrey W. Nickelson's taut approach results in a powerful, sometimes sublimely acted production that's as humorously surreal as it is searingly matter-of-fact.

Set in 1962, all of the play's action takes place in an austere Brooklyn candy emporium run with Spartan efficiency by its proprietor, Glas (Carl Ezold), a gaunt German immigrant. Alone in his shop and apparently blissfully so, the old man's methodical late-night ritual of checking his store's inventory is interrupted by a harried young black man, Randall (Cajardo Lindsey), who bursts through the door and quickly strikes up a rapid-fire, one-sided "conversation" with the flabbergasted businessman. The mildly limping Glas makes a few feeble attempts to eject his after-hours intruder (including a couple of pistol-waving episodes that the streetwise youth greets with a smug smile and feigned riposte with the sharp point of his umbrella). But Randall eventually ensconces himself behind the shop's counter, where he and his unlikely brother-in-arms strike up a testy debate about prevailing social concerns.

They're eventually joined by a plain, callow woman, Rosie (Clare Murphy), who wanders into their ideological battleground to ask for directions to the Brooklyn Bridge. Before either man can offer assistance, the pregnant Rosie faints to the floor, which is how Act One ends.

When the play resumes, the three lost souls pour out their hearts to one another, making the occasional pithy observation or tension-deflating wisecrack. As the drama builds to a series of excruciating climaxes, we witness Glas expose his tragic past in a macabre mock trial and listen to Randall's confessions about his mother's life as a prostitute. For her part, the Bronx-born and -bred Rosie humorously recounts the passion-filled moments (which occurred in her boyfriend Harold's grandmother's attic in suburban New Rochelle) that have compelled her to seek an illegal--and, as Glas emphatically reminds Rosie, immoral--abortion.

To their credit, the actors never try to resurrect Sixties cliches; instead, they engage in a contemporary re-examination of the social battle cries that permeate Hanley's play. In fact, except for a few passages of dialogue about the masks people wear, there's hardly a moment in Nickelson's stylistically updated version that brings to mind a television drama infested with Nehru jackets and foot-high hairstyles. In a strangely profound sense, you get the feeling that Hanley's timeless message about the need to find salvation from within--which likely inspired yesteryear's idealistic protesters to bellow incessantly for economic and racial equality--speaks just as clearly to today's proactive and practical crusaders for empowerment.

The accomplished ensemble is anchored by Ezold's assured, measured portrayal of the fiercely proud and intensely private shopkeeper who reluctantly reveals that his wife and son were murdered by the Nazis. When Glas talks about the now-traditional practice of lighting a candle to memorialize the killing of 6 million Jews, Ezold beautifully summons a restrained, eloquent scorn as he whispers, "You light the sun, maybe, but a candle?" Later in the play, when Glas is forced to admit that he isn't all that he's cracked up to be, Ezold again marvelously understates his character's acute anguish, saying simply, "If I disguise my voice to speak the truth, is it no less the truth?"

Wearing sunglasses and a black cape for nearly the entire evening, Lindsey invests Randall with a singsong, ebullient charm that belies his shattered emotional state. The lithe actor, who sometimes displays an unfortunate tendency to rush his lines, maniacally glides about the stage and spews forth cutting remarks (mocking the hushed small talk of white folks trying to make a socially acceptable comment about blacks, Lindsey earns abundant laughter when he hisses, "They're so spontaneous and uninhibited, those people"). Lindsey also tempers his character's scathing indictment of false facades with a wonderfully conveyed realization that his own desire to escape reality is just as palpable as anyone else's. And even though Murphy's portrait of Rosie bespeaks a woman who exists more on the surface of life than on its proverbial edge ("I'm sharp as a tack and just as flat-headed," she concedes), her deadpan utterances about the ironies of life are deftly placed for maximum comic impact.

Nickelson's staging sometimes has the effect of derailing his actors' Herculean efforts. For instance, the door to the candy shop is placed at the back of the small theater instead of offstage, causing spectators to repeatedly crane their heads around one another to keep abreast of the performers' many entrances and exits. And Randall's heartrending monologue at play's end is all but lost when Lindsey quietly relates crucial elements about his character's past while perched on the edge of the relatively low stage, which is out of the view of most theatergoers.

All in all, though, Nickelson and company articulate the essence of the playwright's cathartic, if labored, message in a poignant manner that not even LBJ--or his legions of detractors, past and present--could manage to achieve: "Hell is the denial of rebirth; heaven is the first filling of lungs with the breath of a new life."

Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, presented by the Shadow Theatre Company through September 11 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 837-9355.


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