"I don't see how that time could turn into this time," agonizes an ex-Royal Air Force officer, remembering the days when jobs seemed to rain from the heavens over his merry ol' nation and nice girls dared not drink in pubs. Songs of romance and loverly dreams hypnotized comely couples in dance halls, mums in cute cottages baked scones for the morning, and even the fine English mist falling at dawn seemed like a gentle grace descending upon the proud island.
In 1987, the occupants of a depressed Lancashire alley - dubbed simply by them the "Road," because the full name long ago rotted away - now describe England as "an old twat in the sea," where lasses don't hesitate to sell themselves for a few greasy chips (forget the fish), and teen-agers would rather starve to death in bed than face another day "on the dole" (the endless, anemic checks from British unemployment), and the only way to ease that rigid, angry feeling is by drinking one's self into unconsciousness.
How could those days of old have evolved into this?
The question begs to be answered from all latitudes and longitudes. Burning in L.A., begging on Biscayne, mugging in New York - these ghosts of Christmas-to-come have nothing left, zombies constructed by Reagan's America. In confrontational playwright Jim Cartwright's north country portrait, Road, Margaret Thatcher's Britain fares no better. The BBC's jolly image of Coronation Street, with good-humored pub dwellers hoping for a better life, has cruelly metamorphosed into a pit of drunks, skinheads, whores, beggars, aging whores, and petty thieves without means of escape. The best booty to be lifted from this 'hood is an old crucifix minus the Jesus, who the thieves believe "jumped off." Even the cross's original owner doesn't want it back.
The relentless bile of this black comedy enters the normal hum of South Florida theater courtesy of the newly reorganized, spruced-up, and fully resurrected ACME Acting Company, New Times's 1992 Best Theater Group. Having taunted and taught audiences for more than five years - before an abrupt eviction from the Strand restaurant - ACME made do this year with only two productions at The Colony Theater: the sleek, commercial Prelude To A Kiss and now the distinctly different Road. Afterward, the troupe will settle into a sizable (200 seats) space at 955 Alton Road, where they'll present the annual Original Play Festival from July to September, plus a full 1992-1993 season. I can't think of better stage news.
Running all through the Colony, literally, with four playing areas that chase you even into the lobby at intermission - where you can dance and sing with the grimy characters - Road won't please the faint, feeble, or fey. Employing rough but authentic language and some vivid, squirmy scenes, the play emerges in dark fog and ends the same way. "I am pain," cries the starving teen-ager. "I am the solution - no solution."
As a writer, Cartwright poses his share of problems. Too much lecturing and posturing in speeches contrived to elicit pity, along with a first act so maudlin you'd better be in a bloody good mood to sit through it, might have sunk even this brilliant a piece - but it didn't. Road won acclaim in 1986 at Britain's Royal Court Theater, throughout Europe and America, and enjoyed a Lincoln Center Theatre production at La Mama because, as a writer, Cartwright also exhibits the tart mark of talent.
A more-riveting second act adds a healthy dose of wit - an ingredient desperately needed in order to stomach all the mire - and throughout, the playwright uses his pen as a machete. His characters bite at life, spouting gutter poetry and grinding truth. They know that business and religion (business's favorite friend) murdered the child in man. Everyone wonders when they'll see the last man lose the last job in England. Such perceptions come only from writers who see theater as a viable force for social change.
With a huge cast playing these disinherited rag tags during one last-ditch night of camaraderie, Barbara Lowery directs so flawlessly and bravely, she deserves a statue on Lincoln Road. Almost every actor fully masters the accent, mood, and craft, but two performers deserve special recognition: Carol Cadby as Carol, an acidic tart clinging to some faint shred of hope, builds a complex mind and flesh of compelling reality in the final scene, which she owns. The energetic Carlos Mena as Eddie, street-fighter-turned-
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Buddhist, brings perfect physical and emotional prowess to a roller-coaster ride of a monologue.
Betsy P. Cardwell's lighting illuminates the drama, attacking the audience at one point with as much force as Cartwright's bleak writing. Each of the sets by Eric Fliss accurately depicts a circuslike, burned-out Britain, with John Baldwin as Scullery, the homeless master of ceremonies, concealing his malevolence with his grin. If anything needs sharpening, though, it's not Baldwin's skill but his bouncy enthusiasm; Scullery is the jester who sees all and knows how rotten it is. Baldwin's brother James, in his brief appearance as disco master Bistro, possesses a more Mephistophelian quality than was intended for the lead.
At the very end, the appropriate sound of the Pretenders blasts through the fog. While most of Road's inhabitants pretend to be cheerful on this night of carousing, their post-punk lives are "too fooking long." The audience/voyeurs - amused, shocked and sometimes even alienated - cannot run from the pretense, the harsh fact that a once-fine era has turned into this. Road and ACME deserve a visit by every thinking member of the community. Speaking to the company of man, the production challenges audiences to turn this time, somehow, into a better time. In the 1960s, music awakened the conscience of a generation. Perhaps in the 1990s, theater like Cartwright's will fill this last open job.