Nov. 1 CNY Playhouse: Reservoir Dogs

 Photo by Amelia Beamish

Photo by Amelia Beamish

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ not quite ‘Best in Show’

The young company may have bitten off more than it could chew in tackling Quentin Tarantino’s violent, character-driven film noir classic

By David Abrams

The Central New York Playhouse celebrated its one-year anniversary Friday evening with a tribute to Quentin Tarantino’s American film noir classic, Reservoir Dogs — the controversial 1992 film that shocked audiences with its graphic violence and profanity.  The film went on to become a cult classic, having provided the blueprints for Tarantino’s even more violent works that followed, including Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2), Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.

That CNY Playhouse mounted this ambitious undertaking comes as no surprise to those who have experienced the company’s hearty appetite for stimulating repertory since forging a presence as Central New York’s newest theater troupe.  But in tackling a work as challenging (and audacious) as this, the young company may have bitten off more than it could chew.

Tarantino uses violence and profanity much the same way Alfred Hitchcock uses anticipation and suspense: as tools to shock, and manipulate the sensibilities of, the viewer.  But the graphic nature of Tarantino’s violence extends well beyond the discomfort of watching the iconic shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho.  To stage Reservoir Dogs as Community Theater, the company had to balance the story’s raw graphic content with the tolerance levels of the community it serves.  And that’s a tough balancing act.

The present CNY Playhouse production, directed by J. Brazill, preserves the film’s profanity-laced dialogue but sanitizes much of the graphic violence and bloodshed.  But there’s no sitting on the fence when it comes to this story: Either make your “Reservoir Dogs” a pack of wolves, or settle for a litter of Pomeranian Poodles.  Trying to temper the film noir’s objectionable and controversial components is like trying to re-work HBO’s The Sopranos for re-broadcast on The Disney Channel.

The other problem with this production is its inequality of acting efforts.  Tarantino’s films are character driven, requiring an ensemble of strongly defined and believable characters who can remain convincingly in-character while interacting with others.  The film version gives us this, and more.  For example, the fast-tongued verbal assaults between Mr. White and Mr. Pink (played magnificently in the film by Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi, respectively) grabs the viewer’s attention and, like a championship tennis match, turns their heads back and forth with each new volley.  But the sparks never really fly in the current production, largely because there’s too little chemistry between the actors to keep viewers glued to their seats.

The plot of Reservoir Dogs centers on a motley crew of eight gangsters brought together by crime boss Joe Cabot for the purpose of pulling off a jewelry store heist.  Except for Joe and his son Eddie, the gangsters are known to each other only by fictitious names assigned to them: Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue.  The audience first sees the characters as they make insipid (though relentlessly profane) conversation at a diner immediately prior to the heist.  The remaining scenes take place only after the robbery, which as we soon learn has gone terribly wrong.

Typical of Tarantino films, the action in this drama unfolds not as continuous events over time but rather as a series of non-linear, interrupted episodes that slowly begin to fill in the dots on how the present situation has arisen.  But while this flashback device may work well on the screen — where the camera’s cutting away to starkly different surroundings, dress and places can be processed rather quickly — it can be confusing in a live play, where the demands of staging require time to re-set and frame the action for flashbacks.

Another Tarantino trademark is the incorporation of pop culture.  Reservoir Dogs uses music from the 1970s, delivered to the audience as part of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies (narrated in the film by comedian Steven Wright, in familiar deadpan style).  Before long, the music interlaces seamlessly with the story itself.  The Gerry Rafferty/Joe Eagan song Stuck in the Middle with You may forever be associated with the film’s notorious torture scene, where the psychopathic Mr. Blonde dances to the tune while calmly severing the ear of the bound-and-gagged cop.

Director J. Brazill (nobody seems to know what the “J” stands for, and his mother, who sat at my table, steadfastly refused to reveal it) added a few directorial touches that worked rather well.  As the eight gangsters left the diner en route to the heist, each stood and faced the crowd, then ceremoniously fitted sunglasses on his face as a warrior might don a shield of armor.  Brazill’s staged of the flashback scenes that take place inside cars symbolically, with rapidly flashing strobe lights.  Also prudent was his decision to remove the film’s racial insults (such as the frequent use of the N-word and unkind references to Jews), none of which is germane to the plot.

Among the things that did not work especially well was the decision not to show blood during the torture scene, which had unintended consequences with respect to the staging.  For example, after Mr. Blonde mercilessly whacks the face of the bound-and-gagged cop, he then uses the cop’s shirt to wipes his hands.  But in the absence of blood, what is it exactly he’s wiping off?  The absence of blood when Blonde slashes the cop’s face repeatedly with a box cutter removes all sense of reality (and brutality) of this act of violence.  And little effort was made to make the punching and kicking look real — rendering it difficult for the audience to believe these criminals are as loathsome as Tarantino had intended them to be.

There were several problems with the props as well, such as guns that refused to fire on cue.  When Mr. Orange empties his clip into Mr. Blonde’s torso after the latter douses the cop with gasoline and prepares to set him on fire, there are lots of clicks — but only two shots sounding.  And when Eddie finally kills the cop with three shots to the chest, only one sounded.  The guns did however work properly when they absolutely had to, at the climactic finale where four characters are shot simultaneously.

While the acting in this production was generally uneven, with actors focused more on acting than on interacting, there were nevertheless some solid individual efforts — most notably by Jordan Glaski.

Glaski captured all aspects of Mr. Orange’s character and projected these into a three-dimensional realm of credibility.  The role of Mr. Orange demands greater versatility than the other roles, and Glaski demonstrated a thorough mastery of his character’s different faces.  Moreover, his acting didn’t stop when his lines ended.  After Mr. Orange has been shot in the belly and laid to rest on the floor of the warehouse, Glaski writhes in pain and agony — and the contortions continue, in silence, as the others converse.

Dan Rowlands delivered a strong performance as the mercurial Mr. Pink.  Rowlands’s Pink is a stark departure from the highly caffeinated, off-the-charts neuroticism of Steve Buscemi in the film version, but Rowlands nevertheless forges a self-confident character who is wholly believable, and he stands up well in the prolonged tug-of-war (of words) with Mr. White.

Jim Uva, though a good actor, appears miscast as the ultra-cool Mr. White.  Unlike his film counterpart, the resolute Harvey Keitel, Uva fashions his character as one often confused, and exudes more self-pity than self-confidence.

Also miscast is Andrew Brazill as the unpredictable sociopath, Mr. Blonde — a role that appeared singularly unsuited to him.  Played properly, Mr. Blonde should be the most frightening of characters because he, unlike the others who are interested in a clean robbery and getaway, craves violence.  Even the other gangsters loathe him.  (In the course of play we learn that the mentally unbalanced Blonde summarily executes the hostages at the jewelry heist after one of the employees trips the alarm.)

Mr. Blonde is the one who tortures the cop, mercilessly, at the warehouse.  The spine-chilling performance of Michael Madsen in the Tarantino film will forever be etched on my psyche, and comparisons to Madsen’s chilling performance may be unfair.  Even so, Brazill comes off neither scary nor mentally unbalanced — he’s just a soft-spoken, smug, wisecracking thug.

As the crime boss’s son, Eddie, Joel Miscione captured the moment with his sudden scary outbursts of anger, and he played his part with the right touch of craziness for us to believe he’s capable of drastic action at any given moment.  The anger peaks when he confronts Mr. Pink and Mr. White over the execution of Mr. Blonde, and again when defending his father at the story’s dramatic final confrontation.  Miscione does however have a tendency to mumble from time to time, such as during the flashback scene with the just-released-from-prison Mr. Blonde at his father’s office.

As Marvin Nash, the hapless captive cop kidnapped by Mr. Blonde, Patrick Kelly commands great sympathy from an audience forced to watch helplessly as the poor man suffers, horribly, at the hands of the psychopathic Mr. Blonde.  Although Kelly’s cries are curiously muted during the early part of the torture scene, he jacks up the volume to proper decibel levels when Blonde attacks him with the box cutter (a straight-edged razor in the film version), sending chills — though still no sign of blood — into the crowd.  Kelly teamed up with Glaski for what
proved to be the singular most powerful dramatic scene of the production, as the two doomed men begin to discuss (and perhaps accept) their likely fate.

John Brackett as Joe Cabot looked the part of a crime boss and handled himself well in the final scene, where he tells Mr. White that his “intuition” has fingered the informer whom he now intends to kill.  (Turns out, Cabot’s intuition was right on the mark.)

The choice to cast Navroz Dabu as Mr. Brown is a curious one.  His character’s presence in the story is limited to the opening scene at the diner, where he airs a singularly raunchy interpretation of the meaning of the lyrics in Madonna’s 1984 hit song, Like a Virgin.  The magnificent set designer for this and other CNY Playhouse productions, however, speaks with a thick accent — making it necessary to suspend all belief that this man is your quintessential American gangster.  There is no such disconnect however with Dabu’s set, whose large ladder, tools and storage boxes faithfully captures the look and feel of the warehouse in the Tarantino film, supposedly set at the back of a funeral parlor.

The present CNY Playhouse production ends November 9.  If you decide to go, be prepared for a steady diet of profanity: There are 272 occurrences of the F-bomb in Reservoir Dogs.  (I hardly noticed, having been born and raised in Brooklyn.)

Of course, if you find the profanity offensive you can always opt to wait until the show airs on The Disney Channel.

Details Box:
WhatReservoir Dogs, directed and adopted for the stage by J. Brazil
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)
Performance reviewed: Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 (opening night)
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. Thursday Nov. 7, Friday Nov. 8 and Saturday Nov. 9
Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or 
Length:  About 2 hours, with one intermission
Tickets:  $15 to $20; dinner and show, $34.95 (Saturdays only)
Family guide: Profanity; disturbing themes; cigarette smoking; loud sound effects

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