Stage Reviews : Actors Electrify 1928's 'Gods of the Lightning'

Before he became a poet of the theater, Maxwell Anderson wrote plays to make points. He decried the practice later, but he never swayed from the point behind his and Harold Hickerson's obscure 1928 drama, "Gods of the Lightning," which was, in his own words "that the gravest and most constant danger to a man's life, liberty and happiness is the government under which he lives."

It's the gist of an essay Anderson wrote 10 years after "Gods of the Lightning," but its language is awfully close to the play's language. This naturally makes for a silly play on the page. But put good actors behind the words, and you might make some real theater.

At the Company of Angels in director Paul Brennan's hard-bitten revival, "Gods of the Lightning" electrically lifts off the page for two acts, and then crashes back to earth in the third. And it's all due to the actors.

If this sounds puzzling, it shouldn't to anyone who saw the company's, and director Brennan's, gutsy, in-your-face revival last year of Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty." Where that cast was strong, even Odets' tritest pronouncements in favor of the working man and woman punched through the fourth wall. Where the cast couldn't cope, the wait for Lefty was interminable.

The "Lefty" production was a mere warm-up for this new show, which marks the continuation of this theater's honest and noble effort to revivify an American dramatic style from the '20s and '30s, when polemics were melded with raw-boned, natural emotions. The Company of Angels' patron saint should be Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath."

You can see a little of Fonda in Tony Maggio, who plays Macready, an anarchist union organizer arrested and convicted along with Sam Ingraffia's Capraro of murder. (Anderson and Hickerson, both fresh from the journalism trade, liberally adapted from the events surrounding the 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti trial.) Maggio oozes sincerity without the piety, his piercing eyes hinting at an underlying sadness that no anarchist dream of a world beyond government can assuage.

It is a stunning performance, yet equaled by Ingraffia, who contains his anger until it counts. Since much of Anderson and Hickerson's theatrics happen in speech/sermons, they had best be ones to raise us a little off the seat. Ingraffia's courtroom jeremiad is solemnity fired by a palpably fierce oratorical conscience. His statement on the American flag, alone, gives "Gods" new life today.

We're the jury, so the fierceness hits us between the eyes, the way it did in "Waiting for Lefty." But there are 20 others in this cast, and they are almost all at the top of their game: Art La Fleur's bloodthirsty prosecuting attorney, Suanne Spoke as his desperate counterpart, John Alvin as a wizened and wise observer, Peggy Walker in a brief but stirring turn as a guilt-ridden witness.

Anderson and Hickerson set up a lot of straw men, naively pit the good (the union boys) versus the evil (the cops and the company-bought lawyers), and dole out scenery chewing opportunities. But there is a lot to said for scenery-chewing when it's done with this kind of indomitable conviction.

This even goes for the voice of cynical opportunism, Suvorin (Paul Michael), who holds several trump cards in the overworked plot. Suvorin talks like a survivor, but Michael's rock-hard presence leaves no doubt in our mind.

So, in the midst of such acting riches, how is it possible that no one could see that Pamela Cuming, as Macready's lover Rosalie, can't muster one emotionally true moment? This isn't an issue, really, until the last act, when she is the dramatic heart, as people await any word of a stay of Macready and Capraro's execution. The playwrights wrote Rosalie's final speech like a symphony's climactic flourish, but Cuming is all flat notes and swallowed words.

It's a shame, for the terrific work being done here extends beyond the actors to Thom Madison's seamlessly changeable set and Johanna Lack and Petra Larsen's costumes, which instantly tell us who is in what class.

At 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., until April 28. $10-$12; (213) 466-1767.

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