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UNCHARTED WATERS IT TOOK TECHNICAL SAVVY AND OVERFLOWING AMBITION TO CREATE THE SET FOR 'DEAD END'.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Writer

When the play ``Dead End'' opens tonight at the Ahmanson Theatre, we first glimpse the famed Dead End kids - the street toughs who later became known as the Bowery Boys of the Great Depression - as they come flying down the stage and plunging into the East River.

That's right, the East River, in this case embodied by the orchestra pit, which has been filled with 11,000 gallons of water. No lifeguard on duty, folks, but diving and cannon-balling are permitted, even required. And any audience member sitting in the front row will be reminded that he or she is situated in the Ahmanson's version of a splash zone.

In the original production of Sidney Kingsley's 1932 play, ``They just jumped into the orchestra pit, put baby oil on themselves and called it water,'' says scenic designer James Noone. ``Obviously, today we have much better resources. You want to see the splash, but you don't want to see the water. You want it to be a surprise to the audience and not reality. Reality is kind of not very magical.''

Magical is what Michael Ritchie, the new artistic director of the downtown Center Theater Group, which includes the Ahmanson, is hoping for. Ritchie first produced ``Dead End'' at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1997 and again three years later for a production at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company where Nicholas Martin - tonight's director - served as artistic director.

``I do remember that first night. We attempted to fill the pool and discovered it had a leak,'' recalls Hope Davis, who was part of the Williamstown ensemble along with Campbell Scott and Robert Sean Leonard. ``I think Michael Ritchie patched a leak. I remember him standing there with a garden hose, filling this tremendous pool. He was just determined.''

And he was just as determined to bring it to L.A. The cost of ``Dead End'' is reportedly $3 million, about a million more than the usual cost of a play at the Ahmanson, but Ritchie has raised an extra $1 million from private donors to pay for part of the production.

Because the Ahmanson's orchestra pit is built over a parking garage that is not equipped to handle tons of water, CTG's structural engineers and the set construction shop had to get creative. A 2-foot layer of high- compression foam was installed to surround the pool and the pit's mechanical lift.

Technicians also erected a layer of plywood and a layer of plastic, effectively turning the pool into a enormous water bag contained within an open plywood skinned box, according to the production's technical director, Alys E. Holden.

``There's a lot of sideways lateral force against the pool, and that's where the bracing comes in,'' says Holden, who adds that the structure is braced at several spots.

``The head carpenter walks it every day,'' she adds. ``People worry about the weight of 15 people. In the context of the 104,000 pounds of water it's already holding, that's nothing. If it's holding the water, it can hold the performers.''

The Ahmanson is by far the largest of the three stages to house Martin's production, which created other challenges, including taller sets for the buildings. Installation from the top down (put one piece in, raise it up, then stick another piece underneath) meant that the company would have to rehearse scenes conducted at higher altitudes last.

The sets were built at a scene shop in Calgary and brought over in half a dozen semis. The pool itself has to be regularly cleaned and filtered. The temperature - handled by CTG's electrical department - is maintained at around 73 degrees. Temperature control is critical, says Noone, because actors could easily get sick if they step out of cool water into an air conditioned theater under hot stage lights.

``At one point, all the Dead End boys jump in at once, which is where the stress on the container can come in,'' says Noone. ``They all do cannonballs and dive, and that's a lot of force to be smashed against. That's when we all hold our breath and run downstairs to see if it's all holding together.''

The floors have to be waterproofed as well as fireproofed and, with stage lights hanging over the water, matters could get really dangerous if everything doesn't stay secure.

``Once it's up, it's quite simple,'' Noone says of the set. ``But getting it there, there are a lot of details to remember. Every building has its own interior, and the different interiors have different kinds of stone work and brick work. How do you build all that stuff and keep it light enough to put up and strong enough to hold up to the physical action on stage? It's challenging.''

``I've never worked on a set this detailed,'' adds Martin. ``In a sense, the design for the original production was the beginning of naturalism in scenic design on the American stage. Jimmy's sets take the lights so beautifully. I'm hoping you'll really think you're on a New York street in 1935.''

With a backstage-bulging cast of 42 people, ``Dead End's'' scenery is by no means the only challenge. `Dead End'' is a play that is huge in scope as well as presentation. Eleanor Roosevelt saw the original production three times and Kingsley's play helped bring about a federal study of slum clearance programs during Roosevelt's administration. The play was adapted into a film in 1937, directed by William Wyler and starring Humphrey Bogart, and was a best picture Oscar nominee.

``I'm drawn to plays with huge canvases and huge casts, and this is the prototype of that kind of play,'' says Martin. ``There's a kind of energy in this play that you don't associate with social drama as a rule.''

``I love New York, as do Nicky and all the designers,'' adds Noone. ``I think this show is kind of our valentine to New York City with all of its complexities and problems and issues.''

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

DEAD END

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Oct. 16.

Tickets: $20 to $75. Call (213) 628-2772.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) TRYING FOR A SPLASH

Ahmanson plunges into tricky waters with `Dead End'

Stephanie Diani/The New York Times

(2) James Noone, set designer for ``Dead End,'' which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre tonight, filled the orchestra pit with 11,000 gallons of water so cast members could swim in a would-be East River.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 7, 2005
Words:1114
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