The Original Gangster

You want to see a knowing look, I'll show you a knowing look

You want to see a knowing look, I'll show you a knowing look

The desert has long inspired people to reach for the transcendent and to kill one another, roughly in that order. Accordingly, Robert Emmet Sherwood's 1935 drama The Petrified Forest seeks the sort of truths that emerge when one is staring down the barrel of a gun. The play is also very much of a time when writers applied symbolism and metaphor with a roller rather than a brush, so it is at least a small surprise to see it hold up so well in this Gremlin Theatre production.

The staging ground is the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q, a gas-station/greasy spoon waiting quietly for the interstate to be built to bring the world to its doorstep (in this play, even the buildings have unrealistic dreams). In the meantime, it's home to cranky old miser Gramp Maple (Charles Numrich), N.R.A.-Shriner son Jason (Michael Mikula), and lovely daughter Gabby (Jennifer J. Phillips).

You can almost taste the dust in the back of your throat looking at Tamatha Miller's understated set design. And the ennui it evokes is underscored when pump jockey and former football hero Boze (Carl Schoenborn) sets upon Gabby with amorous designs, born at least partly of boredom. Thwarting these plans—at least temporarily—is Alan Squier (John Middleton), a flat-broke wanderer with a posh New England accent. He sees Gabby as a diamond in the rough, while bitterly noting that a coat of shiny polish has essentially gotten him nowhere.

Middleton lends hyper-precise diction and a note of blithe despair to this man, who reeks of the fumes of spent promise. Phillips, meanwhile, draws out the thirst for sensual abandon beneath the exterior of a small-town nice girl. These two could burn many a night blabbing unproductively over the Black Mesa's signature cheeseburgers, but the bluntly named Duke Mantee has his own part to play in the story—the killer who arrives to ratchet up the tension. It's a role that made Humphrey Bogart famous, first on Broadway and then in a 1941 film that cemented his iconic take on the American gangster. Here, Jerome R. Marzullo lends the part a weary code-of-the-road righteousness. No one likes a killer, but someone has to do the killing.

Sherwood's breakdown of American mythology is so dense that you expect the action to pause for a literary theory seminar. But this production, directed by Peter Hansen, is smart enough to focus on the story and allow the subtexts to remain, um, beneath the text. Each character, it turns out, is in thrall to a different bogus American ideal: Gramp to the war hero and the outlaw, Jason to the law-and-order citizen; Boze to the all-American coulda-been-someone good guy who burnishes his self-image in between attempts to lure Gabby onto her back in the nearest mesa.

Seeing through it all is Squier, who has tasted only the fleeting tang of the most potent myth of all: the American artist whose vision transforms his country. Think: Whitman, Thoreau, Diddy. His own dreams are shot to hell, and he manages for a time to convince Gabby to toss aside her own hackneyed fantasies of France and fine art (you keep wanting him to advise her to move to San Francisco and join a nice theater troupe, but this isn't Tony n' Tina's Wedding, and suggestions aren't solicited). Yet when Squier encounters Duke's brand of futile gangster romanticism—mistaking it for some vision of personal authenticity—he comes around again to the dreamer's side of the table. This may be the modern equivalent of rediscovering a love for American song in the life and times of 50 Cent.

But then again, as Squier himself puts it, "This is a weird country we're in." The Petrified Forest makes a case for America as the land of perpetual self-delusion, full of worshipers of hollow myths. A land where a bullet in the chest and a wad of cash for a pretty girl represent as good a hope for redemption as anything else. Even petrified wood, one imagines, sometimes remembers when the sap ran free.