You’ve got your dramas, you’ve got your comedies, and then you have the toughest of them all, your dramedies. Getting the right mix of laughter with underlining pathos is no small feat.
Five years into the start of the Back Alley we were a producing machine. In 1984 we produced two dramedies at once, SLAB BOYS and THIN WALLS in rep, using the theatre for nine shows a week, with ARE YOU NOW continuing it’s run off-site at the Victory.
SLAB BOYS, part of a semiautobiographical trilogy by Scottish playwright John Byrne, is set in 1957 in a slab room, a small paint-spattered dungeon where the apprentice designers mix and grind colors for the design department, described as a ‘technicolor hell hole’ by the author.
When it was performed on Broadway in 1983 at the Playhouse Theatre with Kevin Bacon, Jackie Earle Haley, Val Kilmer and Sean Penn, Frank Rich’s New York Times review summarized the play as a “proletarian slice-of-life drama in the contemporary British tradition.”
Rich called it, “a very uneven and ultimately less-than-satisfying evening – both in the writing and in Robert Allan Ackerman’s production – but, at its best, we are taken into a gritty and exotic milieu where sassy characters fight back against their lot with both robust humor and anger.”
The production appeared to err on the side of too much drama as Rich went on to say, “Mr. Byrne scores when he just allows his young men to wisecrack and goof around, which is what the slab boys do whenever their superiors are not snooping. Spanky and Phil have turned their daily work routine into a veritable comedy routine; though their heroes are Elvis Presley and James Dean, they trade rat-a-tat punchlines like burlesque clowns. They even lock arms and kick up their legs whenever their zingers, whether sharp or crude, draw an inkling of blood.”
Bill Castellino, just off his brilliant direction of BRAIN HOTEL, must have had this in mind when he directed the Back Alley cast, which included Dennis Christopher (who broke out in “Breaking Away” in 1979), Michael Covert, James LeGros, Bob McCracken, Christopher Michael Moore and the irrepressible Zelda Rubinstein, a 4-foot-3-inch character actress best known for playing the indomitable ghost-purging psychic in “Poltergeist.” All excellent actors.
Our production appeared to err on the side of comedy. Dan Sullivan in the LA Times said Castellino directed it like a “Bowery Boys farce.” Drama-Logue agreed, saying, “Castellino has mistaken zany comedy/drama for Marx Bros. farce.” The Herald Examiner headline was “SLAB BOYS, Played as Farce, Dies.”
John Byrne directed a film version in 1997. Allan and I watched it this week, hoping the playwright would show us how the balance could work. He didn’t get it right on either count: we couldn’t relate to the plight of the characters and the comedy fell flat. Sometimes you just can’t translate what you think is on the page to the stage.