In Scena Theatre's 'Public Enemy,' you may smell a dirty rat
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Brush up on your James Cagney movies before you go near "Public Enemy," the drama currently swaggering around the H Street Playhouse. With fusillading references to "White Heat," "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and other films that starred the often tough-talking screen icon, the play -- by actor-director Kenneth Branagh -- has a cin?aste's perspective that this flat Scena Theatre production, directed by Robert McNamara, fails to open up.
Drawing its outlines from "The Public Enemy," the 1931 gangster flick that made Cagney's name, Branagh's script -- first performed in London in 1987 -- chronicles the Icarus-like career of Tommy Black, a young freethinker in 1980s Belfast. Ducking the Catholic-Protestant conflict that has transformed the unemployment-plagued city into a war zone, Tommy hones his skills as a Cagney impersonator, only to find his apolitical hobby luring him into the real world of duplicity and violence. (Branagh was born in Belfast.)
Portraying this potentially fascinating protagonist in the play's D.C. premiere is Barry McEvoy, the Irish native whose numerous big-league movie and theater credits include starring in the Barry Levinson film "An Everlasting Piece." A Scena alum -- the company's 1991 staging of V?clav Havel's "Mistake" occasioned his first professional stage turn -- the actor opts for far too much opacity in his interpretation of Tommy. With a relentless Cagney imitation -- a rat-a-tat-tat delivery and gritted-teeth American accent, a flinty near-smile, a hint of a vaudeville-bred skip in his gait -- McEvoy certainly drives home the idea of Tommy's obsession. But the unvarying shtick becomes monotonous, and even worse, it acts as a kind of mask, blotting out almost every glimpse of the character's yearnings and vulnerabilities.
As a result, Tommy's self-destructive trajectory starts to seem far less interesting and empathy-worthy than the lives around him -- poignantly fizzling existences evoked with competence, and in some cases flair, by the supporting cast. Daniel Kenner is particularly compelling as Davey, the befuddled best friend who strives to keep pace with Tommy's Hollywood fantasies. Annie Grier brings out the warmth and sensitivity of Kitty, who is drawn into the Cagney-wannabe's orbit after they meet at a talent contest. (Dressed in a sparkly pink-and-white dress and cowboy boots -- Kimberly Dawn Morell devised the telling costumes -- Kitty sings "Stand by Your Man.") Rena Cherry Brown invests Tommy's mother with an enjoyable hard-bitten brassiness, and David Paglin nails his cameo as a cantankerous, erudite video shop owner.
Fans of the movie "The Public Enemy," rest assured: There is a grapefruit allusion here. Don't know what I'm talking about? Then you need a Cagney film refresher before you attend this play.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Kenneth Branagh. Directed by Robert McNamara. With John C. Bailey and Ian Blackwell Rogers. About two hours.
Through May 16 at H Street Playhouse,
1365 H St. NE.
Call 703-683-2824 or visit