This Root's Got Legs

From P.T. Barnum hustling naive ticket holders out of his New York City museum with exit signs that promised "This Way to the Egress" to trailers for upcoming summer movies, misrepresentation stands as one of show business's few enduring traditions. Proud of their command of illusion, theater folk have been especially creative in this regard. For example, in 1962 legendary showman David Merrick sought out New Yorkers sharing identical names with the lead theater critics of the city's seven daily newspapers; he then invited them to attend his Broadway bomb Subways Are for Sleeping, which resulted in a quote-filled advertisement labeling the turkey a "solid hit!" One paper, the Herald Tribune, ran the bogus ad in an early edition, resulting in enough publicity to keep the show limping along for six months. How startling, then, to discover that the ads for the current production at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre engage in truth in advertising right down to the punctuation marks, billing Gary Richards's play The Root as "a comedy/drama." Co-producers Jay Harris and Noah Productions (headed by director Joe Adler) tell it like it is -- a comedy and/or a drama with a wildly uneven tone and a progressively ludicrous story line. The result feels like two different entertainment styles separated by an intermission. A fascinating hybrid, the black comedy works on both levels, thanks to a talented cast and savvy direction.

"Money, money, money -- mooooonnnneeey." As the taut dramatic first act opens, the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" blasting from a radio confirms that the play's title refers to that from which all evil springs. Auto parts, gas cans, and sports pennants announce the setting as a garage, with Jerry Waxman's handsome scenic design literally spilling out into the aisles. The automotive paraphernalia is mere window dressing, however, because Testotorre Garage and Auto Repairs hasn't returned a car to an owner in nearly two and a half years. The garage's not-so-proud owner Vinny (David Caprita) now spends his energies and nights dismantling stolen cars for their parts. This decision to turn the family business into a chop shop has fractured familial relationships, disgusting his father and estranging his wife and son.

He gets no sympathy from master car thief Willie (John Archie), a man whose high school knee injury years ago changed him from an all-city basketball and football star into a player of an entirely different sort. Once known as "The Antelope" for his lightning-quick moves, a dressed to the nines and lookin' fine Willie now finds consolation snorting coke with his impeccably manicured pinky. Reluctant friends, the two men fear and mistrust dirty cop Jerry (Joel Kolker), a veteran with sixteen years on the force, six exceptional merit awards, and a violent nature. Jerry makes his entrance singing "Luck Be a Lady" from Guys and Dolls, and just like the shifty Damon Runyon gamblers in that musical, he wants to hold all the cards. His connections enable him to locate the cars and fence the parts, while his job gives him the leverage to intimidate his criminal partners.

Mindful of Jerry's threats to frame and arrest him if he terminates their deal, Vinny risks his life wearing a wire in an effort to gather evidence against the cop for the district attorney. His desperate attempt to regain both his garage and his family's respect might come too late; because of a loophole in the lease, the repair shop is slated for demolition as part of a development deal. Vinny gets this bit of news from Chick (Arland Russell), his landlord and a part-time porno movie producer of hits such as White Men Can't Hump and Mouth Vesuvius. Into gardening, hunting, liposuction, and Zen, Chick has ignored Vinny's dealings in order to keep Willie's drugs flowing to his movie sets.

With an appreciation of shady business practices and lowlife characters reminiscent of the work of David Mamet, the script observes these rats trying to find their way out of the maze they've built, then reaches a harrowing first-act climax as an infuriated Jerry discovers Vinny's wire. The second-act comedy of errors pits Vinny, Willie, and Chick against Jerry, turning this trio of co-conspirators into the Three Stooges as they bumble around the stage in slapstick attempts to cover their tracks.

Director Joseph Adler provides both an edgy intensity to the crime drama and a brisk pace for the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight-style comedy. By centering the play on Vinny's struggles, Adler offers a clear path around the script's potholes, which include Vinny's ill-defined entrapment plans and his unyielding demands at the drama's end to sever his criminal ties only on his terms, despite his earlier frantic efforts to free himself by any means possible. Most of all, Adler encourages his cast of grifters to con us into following them -- and the plot -- anywhere.

In no petty theft, John Archie steals the show here, turning in a riveting performance: From his first hip-hop jiving moments on-stage, he uses playwright Richards's detailed character clues to make us care about another ghetto kid gone wrong. In one display of his virtuosity, he shifts gears from an ebullient fashion show of his high school reunion outfit to a sober reflection on the projected lack of alumni at the event owing to their violent early deaths. Also, at the top of the first act, Archie mutes Willie's fly attitude, turning warily motionless in Jerry's presence; this sets up the action that follows more effectively than any dramatic foreshadowing could.

Russell's manic portrayal of the mantra-chanting Chick drives the comedy in the production's second half, providing a hilarious distraction as the script forsakes realism for a tidy ending. As for Kolker, his 25 years as a South Florida correctional officer lend real-life background to the heavy Jerry. His bad cop/worse cop interrogation of a trussed-up Vinny, sticking pliers into the latter's back and then complaining about the decline in take-out food, invests Jerry with unbalanced menace. In the lead role, David Caprita delivers a disappointingly internalized performance, portraying Vinny as a nearly emotionless zombie numbed by his precarious dilemma.

Despite its inability to present a uniform tone, Gary Richards's script provides a solid linear story and consistent characters, even managing to survive Vinny's unrealistic actions in the play's weak conclusion. Only Richards's second stage effort (his first, Dividends, played at several local theaters), The Root is referred to by its current producers as a work in progress -- and yet it was a finalist in the annual Eugene O'Neill Playwright's Conference held in Connecticut and has received previous productions at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and at Los Angeles's Interact Theatre. With a little more tightening, The Root could grow into a winner.

The Root.
Written by Gary Richards; directed by Joseph Adler; with John Archie, David Caprita, Joel Kolker, and Arland Russell. Through April 27. For information call 954-929-5400 or see "Calendar Listings.

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