The Central Park horse-carriage business is the starting point for a sharply written and masterfully acted character study called "Room to Swing an Axe."
By JOSHUA TANZER
The key to being a successful Central Park carriage driver, we learn in in the first part of "Room to Swing an Axe," is style. Specifically, you don't want to dress in sweat pants and a Yankee cap you want to give the fares the feeling they've stepped into the middle of a Dickens novel.
That's one of the things our bowler-hatted hero (the always-terrific Joseph Pacillo) learned at the feet of an old hand named Jack, whose story he proceeds to tell along with other slices of the carriage-driver life. After a certain hour, to name one lesson, you're likely to pick up fat cats with a hooker on each arm and you pretend you have no idea what's going on in the back seat.|
"Yes sir, right there 'Home Alone 2,' " you point out obliviously, just doing your job, while you pretend not to hear the distracted passengers saying things like, "Oh baby, you so big! How did I know you be so big?"
"Jack the Hack" is the first of two one-acts in this new work by Alex Dawson, who last year provided a similar glimpse into some unknown lives those of turnpike toll-takers in the very true and funny "Welcome to New Jersey." Dawson has a dead-on ear for what we might call neighborhood macho the kind of hard-edged dialogue that you'd hear not in a gangster movie so much as a factory break room or a corner bar.
The only shortcoming of "Jack the Hack" would be its rather abrupt ending but the second one-act, "Room to Swing an Axe," can actually be seen as completing the first, depending how much you want to read into it. It's a gradually unfolding character sketch told by two former drinking buddies about each other. They know each other well and take pride in their onetime friendship, but now they're each drinking alone and referring to each other in the past tense. One of them happens to be named Jack.
The two characters have distinctly different personalities and drinking styles, and they describe each other with contemptuous intimacy. Jack (Pacillo again), whose whiskey only makes him more intense as the night goes on, considers Gaz basically boring by saloon standards: "He's the guy the bartender talks at and not to while he's cleaning up." Gaz (Craig McNulty), a bleary-eyed, wobbly drunk who has to buy Jack most of his drinks, responds, "You see, Jack basically lived off three things two of which were me."
Dawson, who says he spent some time in the horse-carriage business, has harnessed his strong sense of detail and dialogue to a story with a patient and unswerving sense of where its characters are headed. And the show owes much of its success to its two actors. Craig McNulty plays Gaz a professional guy and lousy husband who just barely holds together his job, marriage and drinking habit with the right hint of punctured manliness while still giving back as good as he gets from Jack. Joseph Pacillo, a bald, burly, charismatic veteran of several Dawson plays, is a dominant presence on stage. You wouldn't think of looking away while he speaks any more than you'd think of getting between his character and a bottle of scotch.
|AUGUST 12, 2002|
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