Walking down the corridor to "Dead End Kids," you pass a "science fair" -- a collection of cardboard exhibits all relating to atomic energy. There's a peep show about uranium, an explanation of how atom bombs work, and even a model of a nuclear reactor. "Pull out the control rod," the sign says, "and start your own chain reaction!"
The rest of "Dead End Kids" is equally whimsical, and equally earnest. This treatment is one more instance of the fact that the most serious subjects be illuminated in astonishing ways through apparently slapstic stage treatment. As the subtitle suggests, it is largely "a history of nuclear power." But it's a polemical one. It is weighted almost totally on the anti-nuclear side. Yet the evening offers more food for thought in three minutes than most shows can muster in three acts. Its thrust is toward the humanities rather than the sciences. Even its most childlike metaphors -- picture books, cartoons, a cherubic Cub Scout -- are reminders of the human meanings that have been swamped by the mad advance of modern technology. Where the machinery of death is concerned -- the atomic bomb and its progeny -- this is a proudly reactionary show. But it's a devastatingly effective evening of sheer theater.
As conceived and directed by Joanne Akalaitis, a longtime member of Mabou Mines, "Dead End Kids," is stunning in its diversity. Its characters range from alchemists to military generals, from Albert Einstein to a sleazy nightclub performer. It begins with a dramatic digest of scientific history, climaxes with a nuclear blast, and ends with a comedy routine that's as barbed as it is low. One bravura scene features Mephistopheles -- played by six actors at once -- having a long talk with Faust, while Madame Curie translates for the audience.
But "Dead End Kids" would be a more effective evening if it were tightened up. The segments would work better if they flowed together more seamlessly, and if their energy level were brought to the same dizzying heights as their polemical and intellectual levels. This could enhance even the strongest portions of the show -- the nightclub comic, for example, has the most biting portion of the evening, but must he be so desperately wormy as a character, and so deliberately sluggish as a self-satirizing performer?
Yet the show is similarly daring in its stagecraft. The playing area is littered with technological icons. Scenes face in and out of view with cinematic ease. Faust sits on a mountainous throne; nuclear warriors read solemn speeches while soldiers and a clergyman snicker in the background; a lecturer explains why there's a carrot in her A-bomb model. Meanwhile, disembodied voices float through the air, and music underlines key moments -- from Philip Glass to Ramsey Lewis, from Berlioz to Ronnie & the Pomonas.
As freewheeling as the evening is, it's geared toward a single point: that we are all "dead end kids" if we don't get off the nuclear bandwagon. The show suggests reasons for our predicament -- the mystique of discovery, the limitations of the scientific method, the blind momentum of technological progress.
Modern science and alchemical myth are not entirely unrelated, according to the "Akalaitis hypothesis," which is illustrated by a mathematician explaining a familiar theory of infinities.
Though these are secondary matters, they affect a good deal of the show. One hopes they will smooth themselves out as the engagement continues. As it stands , "Dead End Kids" is flawed but uncommonly meaningful evening.