Hell is a nice place to visit. I spent a year there one night (1918 to be specific), in Coney Island’s legendary Sideshows by the Seashore theatre, minimally dressed up as an immorality play about the gangland genesis of America’s playgrounds, in the auspicious place where Al Capone was carved into being exactly a century ago.
Fringe-culture legend Dick Zigun’s The Education of Al Capone as if told by Jimmy Durante casts us into a dive called the Harvard Inn, where mobster Frankie Yale winds down from his ice-delivery, cigar and funeral-parlor rackets by tyrannizing a longsuffering bar staff that includes a pre-famous Durante on piano, a still-teenage Clara Bow as singing-and-dancing waitress, and a young thug named Alphonse at the door.
It’s like a diabolical (and much more entertaining) version of those animatronic or role-play re-creations you can see at historical tourist traps; set up as a dinner-theatre in the majestically creaky antique space, I got the authentic feeling of being amongst the groundlings without the Shakespeare play (and as Capone was known to say, I mean that as a compliment).
Zigun sees the primal appeal of the earth-level entertainment that made people like Durante and Bow legends, and sticks to the prehistoric sexism and stereotypes that surrounded it, the better to encase it in a bubble we can keep our distance from and unhesitantly laugh at. The play makes its old auditorium feel like a cave on whose walls true forms of what once was flicker; we know the future will be whisking us back out soon enough, along with most of the characters.
By the time I was a kid, Durante was long-since the most respectable of performers, even as he carried his leprechaun charm and hobo chic to the end; Bow was long-dead, but known to me in the eternal life of her ur-youth-culture silent movies. The primeval murk of violence and exploitation they grew out of is a strangely reassuring commentary on the compulsory wholesomeness I associated their era with as a kid.
Even figures like Yale and Capone have been transubstantiated into pure entertainment, so it’s fair enough that guys like them gave so many artists their start. In the play Durante starts as the omniscient MC/Greek chorus figure and gradually sinks into the ensemble; the narrative is drifting away from him and he’ll soon leave it behind for good. Between the gloriously corny old saloon numbers and gangster trash-talk, Bow launches into a brief outburst rapidly cataloging her rapist dad, violently psycho mom and other ordeals; reality flares out through the curtain of fiction and is stamped out quickly, since the real-life Bow will keep it quiet for decades to come.
As Durante, Rob Romeo is antic and enchanting; Natalie Michael’s enforced charm and defiant cheer as Bow is luminescent; Will Thomae makes a convincing and unsettling Capone-in-training; Rita Posillico has walked straight out of a Busby Berkeley movie and looks back with knowingness and wit as toughgirl waitress Columbia; Robert Aloi is a man of a thousand well-wrought personalities as the dive’s bartender, a series of passing patrons, and the rival hood who gives Capone his “Scarface” nickname in a fight; and with stiff competition Nikos Brisco is perhaps the standout as the sociopathic Yale, buffoonish and menacing by hairpin turns.
In real life, Durante worked the College Inn, and Bow was a bun-slicer at Nathan’s hotdog palace; Zigun accounts for these discrepancies in an inventive way that acknowledges the unreliability of historical records and the authenticity of myth. An entire way of life was rubbed out and redrawn in early 20th century America time and time again, and The Education of Al Capone as if told by Jimmy Durante adds some master strokes to the portrait while making it as clear as it’s ever been.
The show’s first run continues through Nov. 25, 2018; the lowdown is here: https://www.coneyisland.com/theeducationofalcapone