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‘Sugar Down Billie Hoak,’ a new play, opens off-Broadway

August 6, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ You can hear the rats scurrying about.

Chalk up another amazing set from veteran designer Edward T. Gianfrancesco, whose re-creation of an abandoned New York subway men’s room makes the audience shudder and take notice even before the evening begins.

Now if the play were as fiercely and unnervingly realized as its unsavory setting, the New American Stage Company would have quite a show on its hands. Yet ``Sugar Down Billie Hoak,″ the drama in question, is more promising than satisfying in its incarnation at off-Broadway’s Theater at St. Peter’s Church.

Playwright Brian Silberman has tried to concoct yet another male bonding experience _ and gets about halfway there. In this case, it’s the desperate tale of two half-brothers, teen-agers who unite after messing up a drug deal for a pusher who doesn’t tolerate mistakes.

Older brother Duke scowls and struts, masking his insecurity behind a bravado that takes on all comers. Duke basks in the adoration of his younger brother, Boogie, while secretly envying the kid’s more-than-odd relationship with their father, a Vietnam vet who committed suicide.

Boogie’s insecurity borders on the psychotic. He is eager for any kind of approval from his brother and, as it turns out, from strangers.

These guys rat-tat-tat four-letter words with the rapidity of an automatic weapon. It’s sort of coked-up Mamet, but Silberman has a style all his own that makes the conversations disturbing to listen to.

The two brothers fidget and fight as they try to decide what to do about their botched cocaine caper. When Duke takes off to make amends with the dealer, Boogie remains behind in the subway.

A homeless man, hiding for much of the first act under a piece of cardboard, suddenly appears _ and Silberman’s play promptly derails.

The derelict, named Street, is a disgusting bum, but, all of a sudden, he becomes the father figure Boogie never had. The drama can’t stand the weight of all the psychobabble he spouts. It nearly destroys much of the gritty reality created by the two brothers.

Their credibility comes from Silberman’s talent for putting on stage complete characters, two lost boys who can’t find their way out of never-never land. Brian Vincent, as Duke, blusters with genuine anger, and Jon A. Abrahams exhibits a touching vulnerability as the hapless Boogie. Michael Cambden Richards is stuck with some of Silberman’s more pretentious writing, sounding more like a disoriented group therapist than a nasty panhandler.

It’s a credit to director Guy Stroman that he manages to keep this meandering tale spinning long after the playwright has veered into unconvincing melodrama about the sins of the father _ and sons.

Meanwhile, marvel at the set. Gianfrancesco has quite a reputation in New York for designing extraordinary settings for the WPA Theater in their shoe box of a playhouse on west 23rd Street. Here, his graffiti-scarred, refuse-strewn environment instantly suggests a turbulent story that is only fitfully reflected in ``Sugar Down Billie Hoak.″

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