Tommy Black, unemployed, miserable and depressed, has been cowering in a room in his mother’s house watching Jimmy Cagney movies, temporarily safe from the bullies and bullets of 1980s Belfast. Eventually, having absorbed some of Cagney’s swagger, he emerges,
and, when we see him at the outset of Kenneth Branagh’s first play, he is giving a Cagneyesque rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at a seedy night club’s talent show. Tommy (Barry McEvoy) is scary good at mimicking Cagney. He delights his adoring mother (the always interesting Rena Cherry Brown) and charms talent show runner-up Kitty (an appealing Annie Grier), who becomes his girlfriend.
He charms us, too. His romantic banter and fast-growing relationship with Kitty inspire us to root for Tommy even as his actions turn darker. For though Tommy relies on dialogue from various classic Cagney films to negotiate himself through the tripwire minefields of Belfast, the Cagney character he is most fixated on, unfortunately, is the martyred gangster/psychopath Tom Powers of the 1931 film “The Public Enemy.” When Tommy commits an impromptu robbery that escalates with an ill-advised act of violence, he gets the local police and both the Catholic and Protestant paramilitary forces all tracking him down and endangers his best mate Davey (Daniel Kenner).
The idea of Public Enemy is more intriguing than the play itself. The work uses far too much expository narration by a local detective named Thompson (Matt Dougherty) who reports the old case and which gets the first act off to a slow start. The initial act of violence seems implausible, even given Tommy’s Cagney obsession, and the script repeats a few lines such as “Top of the world, Ma!” from “White Heat” to excess. Yet Public Enemy ultimately develops a gripping momentum.
The success of this production is due in large measure to the compelling leading performance of Barry McEvoy, a Belfast native and acclaimed actor who returns to Scena Theatre after a nineteen year absence. He provides a solid emotional base for Tommy, avoiding the caricature that is an easy trap. His portrayal of Tommy’s psychological deterioration is convincing, especially as he slips in the violent outbursts that made Cagney such an effective portrayer of gangsters. McEvoy is backed by a strong performances from Rena Cherry Brown, John C. Bailey, Ian Blackwell Rogers, Annie Grier and David Paglin.
Director Robert McNamara stages the work inventively in the small H Street Playhouse space. He does his best to level the tone of the work even though Branagh’s script sometimes leaves the audience unsure whether to quake with fear or quiver with laughter (I am thinking particularly when Branagh invokes the famous “Public Enemy” scene where Cagney smashes a grapefruit in his girl’s face). McNamara and the production team manage to imbue the production with a gritty, unsentimental charm reminiscent of the original film.
Public Enemy is an interesting mash of psychological drama, shoot ‘em up gangster story, and affectionate film tribute with a dollop of social commentary thrown in. In the capable hands of Scena Theatre, Public Enemy winds up as an engaging and enjoyable diversion.
By Kenneth Branagh
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight