?Public Enemy? and, to an extent, director Michael Curtiz?s 1938 melodrama ?Angels With Dirty Faces,? an almost equally popular Cagney venture, have served as the inspiration for John Kearns?s new play, ?Designers With Dirty Faces,? very briefly on view at the Little Theatre of St. Mary?s, BVM Help of Christian parish, in Woodside, Queens.
Jimmy Cagney is notoriously easy to imitate, as nightclub comics and TV impressionists have been indicating for more than seven decades, and Kearns?s well-meaning but muddled satire gives us yet another attempt, this time by actor Rob Brennan, familiar to fans of the now-defunct Macalla Theatre in Woodlawn, in the Bronx.
Playing a ?character? identified as ?James Cagney,? Brennan?s earnest efforts are partially successful, but not nearly as satisfying as the carbon copy Cagney worked up by Dublin-born actor Paul Ronan at Manhattan?s Irish Art Center a few seasons back, when the group staged ?Public Enemy,? a play written by actor and director Kenneth Brannagh.
To be fair, Ronan had a vastly more stable vehicle to support his work on West 51st Street than the effable Brennan has in Woodside.
What Kearns, a technical software writer with a novel, ?The World,? to his credit, was aiming for is a satire of the sorts of films that earned the Yorkville, Manhattan-born Cagney an enduring reputation as an A-list star, pretty much starting with ?Public Enemy.?
The grapefruit attained a measure of immortality with ?Public Enemy? is significantly on view in ?Designers With Dirty Faces,? this time functioning not merely as an annoyance, but as an especially effective murder weapon.
Another classic Cagney moment from Wellman?s film is represented in playwright Kearns?s direction of his own work, and, repeated, over and over again, always to diminishing effect.
?Designers With Dirty Faces? re-creates, no fewer than six times, the searing scene from ?Public Enemy? in which the gangland ?hero,? Tom Powers, played by Cagney, dead and wrapped in the manner of an Egyptian mummy, is delivered to his mother?s tenement door.
When his brother responds to a knock at the door and opens it, the Cagney corpse teeters for a moment in the hallway, just long enough for the movie audience to register abject shock, and then falls on its face on the hallway floor.
Where Wellman designed the sequence for horror, Kearns and his obviously cooperative company have gone for laughs, with Brennan making every entrance with a tumble through the doorway. Cagney, for what it?s worth, didn?t break his fall, letting his body take the blow, while Brennan, perhaps understandably, protects himself as thoroughly as possible. After the first few falls, who could blame him?
Kearns clearly has to learn a few lessons about the diminishing effectiveness of repetition, and the production is salted through with sight gags that soon wear out their welcome and all too quickly become annoying rather than amusing.
The most grievous offender in this area is a pretty girl, wobbling on treacherously high heels, speaking a form of 1930s ?babytalk,? and bridging scenes perhaps 20 times, carrying display cards listing the pleasures she hopes the audience will find in the sequence immediately forthcoming.
Wearing a fringed mini-skirt in Act One, and thereafter a clinging sequined number, she mugs to the audience in burlesque house bimbo style, feigning an inability to comprehend the precise meaning of the phrases and slogans she is proclaiming. The role is played, with suitably good humor, by the appealing Amanda Minker.
Every Cagney hero appears to have come equipped with a reasonably loyal female accessory, and, true to form, Kearns?s version of the tale comes equipped with ?Chrystie,? played with grace, style and humor by Kate Grimes.
?Designers With Dirty Faces? is larded through with musical and verbal references to familiar movies and plays, the most surprising of which, and the most obscure, is a nod in the direction of Boss Mangan, a character in George Bernard Shaw?s ?Heartbreak House.?
Kearns?s Cagney romp lurches and stumbles where it ought to trip lightly, and interminable furniture-shifting pauses, some of them longer than the scenes they separate, don?t help.
The show?s run finishes with performances this Friday and this Saturday at 8 p.m. The number for information is (718) 371-3651.