Onstage: Dead End

Know's latest production is a look at going nowhere

Jan 17, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Deogracias Lerma

Michael Burnham (left) and Jeff Groh star in Know Theatre's production of Gompers.

The town of Gompers is probably not a place you'd want to live in or even visit, especially not in the middle of depressing January. But Adam Rapp's play Gompers, in its regional premiere at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, is a locale definitely worth a visit over the next few weeks. But be forewarned: This is not an uplifting script; most of its characters are desperate, unhappy and dishonest residents of Nowheresville.

That's what makes this young playwright's plays fascinating slices of contemporary life, even if they aren't easy to watch. There's a pervasive air of corrosive reality within the lives he portrays. Director Christopher Guthrie has assembled a cast of nine for this darkly comic tale of people with interwoven dead-end lives. Jeff Groh is Richard Dent, the super of an apartment building where most of the characters live. An opinionated loudmouth and two-bit punk who fancies himself a ladies' man and a smooth operator, Dent is the common thread between the others.

Aaron Kotte, his No. 1 henchman Nolan, makes a horrific, bloody entrance in the opening scene. Know regular Liz Holt is Molly George, a 17-year-old girl whose promiscuous behavior with Dent has put her in difficult straits.

Angel Zachel is Molly's mother, an alcoholic who thinks she can escape her addictions and past bad behavior by becoming a dealer at a new casino coming to the river town. Ian Golightly plays Stromile, a high-school dropout and the only character with a shred of integrity, but even he's compromised as he cares for a dying man, Carlos (J.C. Diaz), who wants to end it all.

Most vividly drawn — and enacted in Know's production — are two characters whose fates are oddly intertwined: White Steve is a young teen runaway and Hip Hop rhymer; Anthony Darnell makes this overtly comic character into a portrait of sad pathos, full of odd false bravado and twitchy physical motion. Even more memorable is veteran actor Michael Burnham as Major Finn, a Korean War veteran whose enigmatic, lonely existence is laced with the humorous sound of a bad trombone and an inability to hear.

We don't meet Finn until the beginning of the second act, although his musical contributions are heard throughout the first act. When Dent finally invades the old man's apartment to tell him the trombone practice (he plays a sad version of "When the Saints Go Marchin In") has to stop, actors Groh and Burnham engage in one of the funniest conversations of non sequiturs you're likely to hear, capped by the bearded Finn, wearing his Marine uniform jacket and jockey shorts, claiming, "I only hear about 20 percent of what you're saying." That's evident — and very funny.

There's a thin plot line running through these scenes about a box with some mysterious contents that Dent has in his possession. When we learn what it holds, it's as disappointing as everything else in this sad town — and that's the one letdown with this play. While the characters are memorable, their interaction doesn't really lead anywhere except to a point of desperation. Perhaps that's Rapp's vision of contemporary life, but it's not an especially satisfying conclusion after more than two hours of theater.

Gompers is well staged with one exception: Carlos' apartment is on a platform on the front right side of the stage. Since he is flat on his back in bed, at least half of the audience is never able to see this character who symbolizes the lyric sadness at the heart of Gompers. Other acting areas are on platforms at higher elevations; it would have been easy enough to move Carlos to one of these for better visibility.

Adam Rapp is one of America's most compelling and distinctive voices in contemporary theater. His works are worth hearing for the strain of pure contemporary attitude, albeit dark, that runs through them. Know Theatre is to be commended for bringing this virtually brand-new script to Cincinnati. Grade: A-

GOMPERS, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Feb. 3.