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The Underclass of '42




Prop Theatre

at Latino Chicago Theater Company

"Most of us 20th century Americans are reluctant to admit the tragically low quality of experience of the broad American masses; feverish radio programs, super advertisements, streamlined skyscrapers, million-dollar movies, and mass production have somehow created the illusion in us that we are "rich' in our emotional lives," wrote Richard Wright in his introduction to Never Come Morning, Nelson Algren's 1942 novel about crooks and hookers in Wicker Park, Chicago's Polish ghetto. "Never Come Morning portrays what actually exists in the nerve, brain, and blood of our boys on the street, be they black, white, native, foreign-born."

Two generations of social evolution and technological progress have only exacerbated the cultural emptiness Wright described--the vast gulf between people's physical and emotional needs and the junk they are forced to settle for, especially if they're on the poor end of America's ever more divided economic scale. Today, Never Come Morning (which was attacked when it came out as Nazi propaganda by the local Polish American establishment, whose complaints got the novel banned by the Chicago Public Library and made Algren the subject of an FBI investigation) seems at times almost quaint: a nearly obscenity-free depiction of an urban underclass not yet acquainted with the fast-paced thrills of crack, automatic assault weapons, and mass media that celebrate and enflame human beings' most ruthless and selfish urges. But the book's unflinching examination of what used to be called juvenile delinquency is timelier than ever. The final words of Al- gren's death row-bound protagonist--"Knew I'd never get t' be twenty-one anyhow"--seem an all-too-apt epitaph for a time when 11-year-old killer-victims dominate the news, representing the failure of both an individual family and a whole society.

In adapting Never Come Morning for the stage, playwright Paul Peditto, director Jennifer Markowitz, and a superbly sensitive cast let the story's relevancy speak for itself. Steering clear of preachiness and sensationalism, they have fashioned a work of downbeat integrity that achieves its power not by manipulating audience sentiment but by presenting viewers with clear, plain action. I don't know whether their efforts will win popularity. The opening-night audience, for instance, at first laughed at the white-ethnic goons who populate the 1940s Bucktown of Algren's book, as if they assumed the production meant to pander to their hiply ironic infatuation with the beat mystique of Wicker Park. But the laughter soon subsided in the face of the play's deadpan rendering of the story's action, which includes a fatal fistfight, prison torture, a suicide attempt, a protracted boxing match, several depressingly loveless sex scenes, and a brutal gang rape.

Peditto's low-key expressionist style (similar to, but less self-conscious than, the early-1920s work of Brecht, O'Neill, and Elmer Rice) juxtaposes dramatic vignettes with interior-monologue renditions of Algren's descriptive dream sequences (a device Peditto also used nearly a decade ago in his wonderful original, Algren- influenced A Fire Was Burning Over the Dumpling House One Chinese New Year). In this way, the story of Bruno Bicek--aka Lefty Biceps, a would-be boxer and "petty thief working his way up to felony Hit Parade"--and his prostitute girlfriend Steffi Rostenkowski is conveyed through the simple, relentless accumulation of events whose tragic outcome is pathetically predictable. There's no heroic effort to overcome the odds here; Bruno's attempt to escape his fate by becoming a prizefighter (he dreams of knocking out Joe Louis) is too improbable to stir our hopes. His actions--which include setting Steffi up for a gang-bang in the back yards of Riverview amusement park--establish him as too rotten and gutless to ever win our sympathy. Yet his helplessness against the crime-nurturing factors of his life--poverty, ignorance, ethnic clannishness, a fatherlessness that makes him vulnerable to the male-bonding appeal of gang life--suggests he's our responsibility.

Prop Theatre's world-premiere production of Peditto's play sensitively preserves Algren's moral imperative. Though perhaps inevitably it lacks some of the densely detailed psychological texture of the book, it rivets our attention with a brisk, uncluttered pace and a strong visual appeal, meanwhile reflecting Algren's influence in its attention to carefully crafted imagery. Evoking the perpetual near dawn suggested by the title, Jeff Pines's subtly shaded blue green lighting scheme, shattered by the pin-spot glare of police interrogation beams as we're introduced to Bruno and his buddies, enhances technical director R. Scott Entenmann's realistic mean-streets set, with its angling el tracks and occasional passing trains, whose dull roar is effectively captured in Erik Leonardson's sound design. The early-40s milieu is convincingly communicated by Toby L. Neiman's costumes and the big-band jazz sound track, whose cool luster so sadly highlights the dull despair of the characters' lives.

Above all, Never Come Morning succeeds on the strength of its first-rate ensemble playing. The most memorable performances are Andrew Hawkes's loose-muscled, mentally hazy Bruno and Lara Phillips's aimless, spiritually stunted Steffi; these fine young actors betray not a trace of condescension or false romanticism as they etch their characters' losing battle with life. Fine support comes from Turk Muller as the police captain Tenczara (brother-in-law to an indicted alderman) and, in a variety of roles, Richard Cotovsky, Robert Maffia, Loren Lazerine, Sharon Gopfert, Kurt Brocker, Guy Massey, G. Riley Mills, Andy Roski, and Jonathan Lavan. Their commitment to honest, unexaggerated portrayals worthily illustrates the moral imperative, more urgent (if more unfashionable) now than ever, summed up by Algren's preface to his novel: "Nor all your piety nor all your preaching, nor all your crusades nor all your threats can stop one girl from going on the turf, can stop one mugging, can keep one promising youth from becoming a drug addict, so long as the force that drives the owners of our civilization is away from those who own nothing at all."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.

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