Labor party

"Fuckin' long life, ain't it?"

Two characters in two different scenes of Jim Cartwright's Road express this sentiment, not so much with weariness but as bitterly humorous testimony to all the ways they must distract their senses to make it through another night. Alcohol remains the diversion of choice, to the point where a night spent puking seems a small sacrifice in the name of scrambling their present circumstances so that the uncertain future -- Or is that a certainly bleak future? -- will seem to stay away longer.

Sex ranks a close second, the kind of desperate pawing that is promiscuous and crude but fatally sentimental at the same time. In their minds, the women and the men see a sickly romantic lamplight shining on their fumblings. Those times when they're aware of how foolish they are can be chalked up to the fact that love makes fools of everyone, right?

Actually, none of the characters gives a damn how they look in Road, given a marathon, exhausting, but exhaustively detailed and poignant staging by Kitchen Dog Theater. England's muckraking playwrights and screenwriters, from '50s pioneer and first of the "Angry Young Men" John Osborne to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, reveled in showing how English manners collected in the lungs like asbestos. They converted pinky-upturned high tea into a tubercular ward where the polite sippers struggled to ignore their wheezing lunges for oxygen.

Osborne was the first post-World War II theater artist to show the moral decay beneath the stalwart British composure, but in the plays and movies of the '80s that brought Loach and Leigh into international consciousness, each had the gift of Margaret Thatcher to kick around. To them, the immorality was not so much class expectations as the way Thatcher had weakened the labor movement, knowing full well that the implicit social pressure to soldier on with dignity would further degrade and constrain the people most affected by privatization, falling wages, and unemployment. In the eyes of the English mainstream, the desperation of the working poor would seem more of a personal failing, an inability to keep their chins up during national hardship.

The characters in Road likely have bruised jaws, so often do their chins hit the bar in sodden fury and self-pity. Kitchen Dog director Tina Parker has choreographed Jim Cartwright's most overtly protest-driven play in a methodical but sensitive way that highlights both the difficulty of the material and her ability to guide actors to break the hardened bile into bite-size, digestible chunks.

Cartwright and his theatrical forebears wanted to shame British tradition by creating characters who, on the page, are grotesque mockeries of it. Finding the humanity inside the inhumane circumstances of this kind of script is a real challenge, and artists whose agendas are strictly hanging-judge theater likely wouldn't bother. What, are you afraid to look at cruel reality? they'd snarl at well-meaning audiences who dared whisper a complaint about being served one heaping bowl of unseasoned, acidic hopelessness.

Parker and her wonderful actors want us to meet these often abrasive Englanders in an empathetic light, if not in a flattering one. Road can be divided into two parts -- a variety of men and women in a North England town gearing up for a 1987 night at the pubs, and the silly, tragic, sordid, booze-soaked, twilit finales to their partying. The characters not only encounter one another randomly on the garbage-strewn road that leads through designer Scott Osborne's effectively cramped, multi-level set, but they collide with audience members as well. Ticketbuyers are asked to take sides in screaming fights between drunken lovers; light the cigarettes of stumbling, flirtatious tarts; risk being vomited upon by middle-aged, jobless boozers; and dance for goofy, disco-obsessed DJs.

David Goodwin, Max Hartman, Jane MacFarlane, Samantha Montgomery, Karen Parrish, Raphael Parry, and Thom Penn are the wide, deep talent pool that creates these and many more unbeautiful losers, often breaking your heart by depicting brief, mundane episodes in their lives that illuminate the larger monotony. My admiration goes out to all of them, but two performers especially startled and captivated me: MacFarlane and Goodwin.

MacFarlane is equally convincing in three varied roles: an aged, trembling woman reliving her past beauty at the makeup table; a lazy, abusive mother sponging a few quid off her daughter; and a lonely single woman so desperate to create a romantic moment, she doesn't mind that the soldier she picked up has just vomited on himself. She's amazing.

Similarly, David Goodwin, a playwright (his most recent work premiered at last year's Frontera Fest in Austin) whose acting excursions in Dallas have sometimes seemed hesitant, essays chest-pounding bravado as a skinhead who applies Zen discipline to his street brawling and as a shy suitor whose passion and confidence are kindled by an Otis Redding 45. He, like the rest of the cast, is uniformly fluid and unself-conscious in delivering mouth-garbling Cockney accents.

Facility with dialect isn't necessarily a barometer of talent -- Have you ever heard Vanessa Redgrave, probably one of the world's greatest living actors, attempt a Southern accent? Yeesh! -- but I'm pleased to report the linguistic demands here prove no distraction for actor or audience.

Be forewarned: Road clocks in at almost three hours with one 15-minute intermission, when Max Hartman gets to showcase his truly astonishing Ringo Starr impersonation inside the karaoke pub Scott Osborne has erected in the McKinney Avenue Contemporary's lobby. The first act lasts almost 90 minutes, and I'd be lying if I said the play wasn't slow here and there because of the relentless sewer-crawling pace of the characters' nocturnal escapades. But given the shrillness, the crudeness, the remorse, the toxic loneliness that playwright Jim Cartwright rubs in our faces, you have to marvel at how many small moments of deft theatricality, touching observation, and even gentle comedy director Tina Parker and her stellar cast find in the economic mudslide.

The second act is shorter and more focused, and it offers the characters and us a morsel of the possibility of transcendence -- through human contact, no less, in an epic of missed connections and brutal, shouting face-offs. Road isn't schematic enough to offer solutions, which is probably just as well. An overt endorsement of labor politics would cheapen the human misery here (even if, in ho-hum real life, it had made a real difference in these people's fates). The art of theater is what turns all the oppressiveness from numbing to tingling and, occasionally, thrilling. So many talented stage artists working at the height of their abilities keep you afloat along the river of muck.