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Cartwright's `Road' tracks today's blighted urbanism

Road Play by Jim Cartwright. Directed by Simon Curtis. After premi`ering auspiciously at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1986, Jim Cartwright's ``Road'' has achieved further acclaim in Europe and the United States.

New Yorkers are now being given the opportunity to join in welcoming a gifted new playwright. Presented jointly by La Mama E.T.C. and Lincoln Center Theater at La Mama Annex, ``Road'' more than fulfills expectations in the exhilarating performance staged by Simon Curtis.

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``Road'' might be described as a latter-day successor to the 1950s kitchen-sink drama. But Mr. Cartwright's troubled environment extends to the mean streets, littered alleyways, and general physical deterioration of today's blighted urbanism. The title refers to the broken sign that gives no indication of the specific street in the small Lancashire town where the assorted events take place.

The evening is introduced by the cheerfully derelict Scullery (Jack Wallace), a street person who welcomes the stage-level spectators onto the premises and serves as occasional tour guide.

``Road'' unfolds in a series of self-contained but sometimes related dialogues and soliloquies held together by a common environment and particularized in individual dramas and predicaments. The author peers into the shadowy corners of the North Country town and reveals what goes on behind some of the closed doors. The result is an authentic slice-of-life expos'e presented in the imaginative terms of creative theater.

Moments of quiet poignancy

Domestic wrangling, coarse talk, and noisy desperation are the common elements of existence in this dingy backwater. But there are also moments of quiet poignancy and an undercurrent of deep-felt humanity. Furthermore, for all its dreariness and distress, ``Road'' can be very funny.

Among the Lancashire folk encountered along the road are four young people primping for a night on the town, a mentally frail old woman musing before her mirror, a once aggressive street fighter who has found his ``dharma,'' an RAF veteran nostalgic for a vanished past, a youthful dissident named Joey on a sort of protest hunger strike, the girl who comforts Joey, and several other underclass denizens of Cartwright's road to nowhere. Joey voices a common predicament: ``No job, no hope. What did I do? What was my crime? What went wrong?''

Rich orchestration of words, voices

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The evening reaches its finale of forlorn hope as the two young men and the girls they have picked up discover a kind of shared rapture in drinking wine and listening to Otis Redding's recording of ``Try a Little Tenderness.'' It is a fitting denouement to Cartwright's rich orchestration of words and voices - a cry from the heart of a world and a generation beyond the embrace of Thatcherite prosperity. Though not a political play, ``Road'' is a moving social document.

The production at the La Mama Annex responds to the considerable demands presented by this teeming mix of types and individuals. Besides Mr. Wallace, the principals are Betsy Aidem, Kevin Bacon, Gerry Bamman, Joan Cusack, Jayne Haynes, and Michael Wincott. They contribute valuably to an ensemble effort in which most of the actors play more than one role.

Although the North Country accents can be variable, the playing proves adequate to the regionalism and eloquence Cartwright has found in his articulate Lancastrians.

Spectators are given the option of viewing ``Road'' from an overviewing balcony or from a stage-level vantage point at which they share the scruffy milieu, encounter the actors directly, and (if they choose) dance a few steps in the disco scenes.

The musical counterpoint suits an eclectic mood - from Otis Redding and Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall to musical references to ``Anything Goes'' and ``Speed-the-Plow'' (Lincoln Center slyly plugging its uptown hits). The production's imaginative environmentalism is fully realized in the atmospherics of Paul Brown's sets and costumes and Kevin Rigdon's lighting. ``Road'' is scheduled to run through Sept. 18.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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