Fascination with murder stories runs as deep as Cain and Abel, and as shallow as CSI: Miami. Maybe it's as simple a matter as identifying the killer within each of us. The homicidal Gangster (Gus Lynch) in Gangster No. 1 certainly thinks so, and he prods hapless thief Eddie (Ryan Newton Harris) to admit to his murderous capacities by presenting him with a scenario in which his elderly mother is brutalized. We're all killers, Gangster argues, and it's all just a matter of degree.
Gangster is, of course, quite wrong in his transparent self-justification. Those of us without blood on our hands deserve at least some credit for not acting on the violent impulses that shoot down our most primitive neural pathways. But Lynch pulls off this moment of sophistry to entirely chilling effect—presaging the intelligence and intensity in this stage take on a 2000 British gangland film.
Writers Louis Mellis and David Scinto also collaborated on 2000's Sexy Beast, and here they mine a similar vein. Gangster kicks off the action sitting back in his chair drinking scotch, recounting his entry into a life of crime in the Swinging Sixties (it was all shagadelic and ultraviolent, apparently). Gangster, a hulking, enthusiastic sociopath, needed to start somewhere, and he got his break from kingpin Freddie Mays (Michael Jurenek), who is also onstage, albeit installed in a spartan prison cell.
The remainder of the first act entails a series of monologues, with various characters set up at tables and chairs around the stage. In addition to Freddie and the aforementioned Eddie, we get a long, tawdry domestic rundown from Bent Copper (Joel Liestman) and a sexily exhausted Melanie (Karen Weber), who experienced the gangster life from the female end of things and has come out the worse for wear. Each performance is focused and precise, although the storyline is elliptical and at times hard to follow. After being fascinated by the convincingly lethal Lynch, we seem to be stuck in a static dramatic construct that isn't playing to anyone's strengths.
This concern dissolves before the intermission, though, when Gangster launches into a description of one of his particularly horrid murders, involving, variously: a machete, a bowl of fruit, a pencil, a chisel, and (for the sake of tradition) a kitchen knife. Lynch is nothing short of terrifying.
Still, there's a sense of fatigue setting in; everything so far, after all, has been a matter of people sitting around and talking more or less to themselves. The second act, fortunately, involves a more traditional staging; while the action remains minimal and stylized, at least people are talking to one another. Freddie, who has spent more than two decades in prison for the murder Gangster committed, is finally released. Instead of unleashing a swath of vengeance, he wants to live a quiet life and marry Melanie. It's a welcome note of sweetness, with Jurenek evoking a less-volatile Gary Oldman and Weber turning in work that mixes hope and desperation. In the end, she suggests, they might be two sides of the same thing.
Gangster is having none of the reformed Freddie and fantasizes about killing his former boss, who naturally holds a talismanic power over him. Mellis and Scinto created a Ben Kingsley role for the ages in Sexy Beast, and here Lynch similarly helps himself to a signature performance of seething fear and heartless malice. The audience surrounding me took much of Gangster's paranoia and scheming as comedy, which sort of surprised me until Gangster himself began to take umbrage—and invited us all outside to settle things once and for all. While the other performers do excellent work, it's ultimately Lynch who takes this thing on his broad shoulders and propels Gangster into the emotional stratosphere of a total psychotic meltdown. You might come away fatigued by the overall emotional nihilism of Gangster No. 1, rightfully groping for the point of it all. Or, like me, you might simply enjoy a finely wrought character study of gnarly moral ambiguity. Nothing kills like death.