Everybody Is Looking to Fill a Need in This Claustrophobic Drama
It's hard to think of an unlikelier couple than Celia and Polo in Hatful of Rain. She's a short, plain secretary at a dull corporate office, and he's a towering, roly-poly bouncer at a hangout for prostitutes and their johns. She's also nine months pregnant and married to his drug-addict brother Johnny.
Nonetheless, the combination of Michael V. Gazzo's 1955 script, Steve Yeager's direction, and the performances by Gina Dipeppe and Todd Krickler spark the romance into flame in the current production at the Vagabond Players. She may waddle around their shared apartment in her green maternity clothes with one hand bracing her back, and he may stumble home drunk in his shiny gangster-bar clothes, but when they struggle with their forbidden attraction for one another, you feel the full force of both their desire and guilt.
When Hatful of Rain first appeared on Broadway in 1955, then again as a 1957 movie, it was acclaimed for its rare, frank discussion of heroin addiction. Half a century later, drug addiction is a show-biz cliché and depressingly common in the real world as well. Now that the hot-button social issue has lost its heat, what's most interesting about the play is not the taboo drugs but the taboo hugs.
The Vagabonds' narrow, wingless stage is often a liability, but Yeager turns it into an asset. Celia and Johnny share a bed in the living room, while Polo sleeps in the tiny bedroom on the other side of the implied wall. The cramped quarters force the characters on top of one another; Celia and Polo can't ignore their attraction as they slide past one another in the postage-stamp kitchen; Celia can't ignore Johnny's evasions as they sit at a kitchen table too small to hold a road map.
By cutting away at the walls at odd diagonals and collapsing the depth, set designer Tony Colavito (who also plays Johnny and Polo's father) creates the illusion that the kitchen, living room, bedroom, drug dealer-filled hallway, and Manhattan skyline are all part of the same closet. The three corners of this romantic triangle couldn't escape one another even if they wanted to.
Late one night when Johnny is gone--Celia is convinced he's having an affair; Polo knows that his brother's out looking for heroin--the wife and brother-in-law share two corn muffins at the teeny table. He's just drunk enough to confess his lust, and she's just tired enough not to protest. You can tell they're trying to control those feelings--Krickler does that frustrated head-rolling thing that guys do when women are putting them off, and Dipeppe does that tunnel stare out into space that women do when they don't want to answer a man's entreaty--but there is obvious chemistry on the stage.
Johnny's not in the room, but his presence is felt just the same. In his obsession with heroin, he has ignored his wife so much that she has had no choice but to transfer her needs to the nearest alternative. And Polo is the kid brother who has always resented his older, more handsome, more popular brother.
The playwright is also smart enough to acknowledge that addiction is financial as well as emotional. With a $40 a day habit and another lost job, Johnny is constantly turning to Polo for another loan: Money matters. It's one thing to watch your brother lose his job, marriage, and self-respect to a terrible need. It's another thing to have that need--a need you don't even share--take away your own life savings and car. To make matters worse, the brothers' father shows up looking for the $2,500 loan Polo had promised seven months earlier. Polo can't bear to tell the old man the truth about his favorite son; all he can say is, "The money is gone [and] gone doesn't come back."
This isn't a perfect production. The actors are not full-time professionals, and their focus occasionally lapses momentarily. DeAngelo overstates his shakes before the script allows the other actors to notice his withdrawal symptoms. Dipeppe and DeAngelo do good Italian accents, but Krickler and Colavito are less successful. Yeager's decision to make audible the sounds in Johnny's mind--a childhood whistle, artillery from the Korean War--is unfortunate. And Gazzo's final scene resolves things too tidily and easily, especially after he has left things so raw and rough for most of the play.
DeAngelo, though, is probably the most talented actor onstage. With his slicked-back hair, leather jacket, and lantern jaw, he has a bit of the young Marlon Brando's charisma. But like real-world junkies, Johnny is not all that interesting; the drug has robbed him of free will. Celia and Polo are much more fascinating, and Dipeppe comes to dominate the show as the uneducated, unsophisticated Celia muddles through an impossible situation on sheer determination.
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