"Slab Boys," a bustling comedy machine that came to the Playhouse last night, succeeds mainly in generating tedium. One could blame the director, Robert Allan Ackerman, who has been unable to set a smooth comic pace (the Hudson Guild production two seasons ago was superior in this respect, as well as seeming more authentic to the Scottish background), but blame for the play's failings must finally lie with the playwright.
Like Arthur Miller's "A Memory of Two Mondays," this is a rather affectionate look back at the author's early experiences holding down a menial job in a shop. Set in 1957 in the "slab room," spattered from floor to ceiling, of a carpet manufacturing plant near Paisley, Scotland, it invites us into the lives of a few young men who, for a few pounds a week, mix colors for the designers. Standing before slab-topped tables, they blend colored powders with water and gum with the aid of long spatulas, and they all hope to become designers. But one (a stand-in for the author, a painter of some note as well as a playwright), shows talent as an artist, and in the end, when he has been rejected by an art school as well as fired from his job, he sweeps off with portfolio under his arm and hope in his heart.
This is all obviously drawn from life, probably even down to the boy's mother's attempts at suicide and confinement, but Byrne has managed, except for brief moments, to make it seem no more original than a standard '30s farce. The pranks the boys, all Presley and Dean fans, indulge in; the tyrannical behavior of their foreman, or gaffer; the sexy redhead sketcher who swings in and out from time to time; the low-comedy coffee lady; the exceedingly neat, well-educated, and proper new boy - these are all time-worn elements. And they are given scant thrust by the author's dialogue, which runs to such exchanges as: "It must have been a miracle!" "No, a Ford sedan," or "What's this? It's burnt umber!" "I never burnt it."
In a sense, Byrne has thrown away his youth, or at the very least cheapened it. Much as we're inclined to like these young men with their rough, though rarely obscene, language, and crude behavior, they weary on us well before the overlong play is done. There are a few good sight gags, but the mugging and cutting up are overdone. There are also a few amusing lines, but they are like oddities in the long, arid stretches of forced humor.
The attempts at Scottish working-class accents is awful, though a couple of the actors rise above this handicap. Kevin Bacon, for example, is arresting as Phil McCann, the boy inspired by Giotto, a onetime "slab boy" himself, as Phil tells the others in an exultant parting shot. And Madeleine Bentley at least speaks clearly as the immaculately-dressed and nicely-rounded young sketcher sought after by all the boys, but with whom Phil tries to arrange a date for the staff dance with the grotesque wimp of a boy named Hector.
The latter, played by Jackie Earle Haley, is the subject of a running gag in which he becomes bloodied, hidden from sight, ridiculously outfitted and tossed about, even to becoming an apparition eliciting loud screams from the sketch girl until, the worm turning, he is promoted to designer at the end. Sean Penn, as Phil's fellow cut-up; Val Kilmer as the new boy; Merwin Goldsmith as the gaffer, Brian Benben as the pimply designer and object of more jokes because of his severe acne, and Beverly May as the hardened but motherly tea lady all give acceptable performances, but for their accents.
Both the setting and the costumes have been modeled on designs by the author. Arden Fingerhut has done the lighting, and well. But the play doesn't come off, for in spite of his novel setting (that's another thing, the boys hardly ever seem to go about the business they're being paid for), Byrne prefers to remember his youth as an old-time movie, and a B-movie, at that.
John Byrne is a talent - as a playwright and as a painter. His play Slab Boys opened last night at the Playhouse Theater.
It is a lovely, touching play about the agony of growing up. It is very obviously autobiographical.
He was born in Scotland and worked as a slab boy for a year before he was accepted for the Glasgow School of Art. First - basics - what are slab boys?
They are the people who mix and grind down paints to be used, in this instance, by designers in a carpet factory.
They are apprentices to art, or, as in this case, commerce.
As Byrne informs us, "Giotto was once a slab boy."
The workers in this factory - a place where grafitti seems to sprout like mushrooms in a damp neighborhood - are not too much like Giotto.
Few of them are going to be great painters. Few of them are even going to be great slab boys.
The moment is a morning of 1957. Elvis Presley had just become a Hound Dog, and James Dean had found a rebel without a cause.
And the cultural waves - the attitudes - had stretched out across the world. Even to Paisley, Scotland.
The hero walks through the opening curtain of his life with a certain cocky assurance.
This is the morning where he gets his comeuppance - which, in effect, is going to force him into life.
It is a play not simply about growing up, but also about values and environment.
Phil - Byrne's central character - seems to be facing disaster with loud desperation.
Byrne has caught a locale and the odd universality of that locale with needlepoint precision.
The facts are all there and correct. And the people are exposed to our scrutiny with a raw power.
The people, mind you are not that interesting.
One of the play's problems is the very obviousness of its despair and the simplistic clarity of its action.
Times are tough for adolescents - and Slab Boys shouts out this fact to an obviously uncaring world.
But what makes the play rewarding is Byrne's ability to make life live. These people are very real. Their screams and shouts in Glaswegian accents are not always that easily comprehensible - but the compelling picture of large people in a small space unquestionably is.
The director, Robert Allan Ackerman - who earlier this season staged Extremities with Susan Sarandon - is essentially physical.
He insists on the play moving in chillingly direct lines.
It works. Particularly because of the actors. Ackerman has a specialty that clearly involves stripping actors down to the basic talents.
Kevin Bacon's Phil - Byrne's presumably autobiographical hero - has a kind of plaintive violence, a tricksy intelligence that really touches the heart.
His counterpart, the sullen, cynical loser is equally brilliantly played by Sean Penn.
Penn and Bacon make sparks happen. Yet the whole cast has a particular forcefulness that manages to overcome the difficulty of the faithfully Glaswegian accents that are occasionally as thick as soup.
Slab Boys is, first of all, funny. It is also a play with a heart. You will remember it.
John Byrne's ''Slab Boys'' is set in a dingy workroom of a carpet manufacturer in Scotland. The walls are institutional green; the towering windows are so grimy that the sun hasn't a chance of peeking in. Yet the effect is far from depressing. This is a cell where the title characters mix the paints that are used by carpet designers, and those pigments are splattered willy-nilly over nearly every inch of the place. Though the setting may well be a Dickensian sweatshop, it somehow manages to contain the jagged, abstract hint of a rainbow.
Mr. Byrne, an artist as well as a playwright, designed the set himself in collaboration with Ray Recht, and it's the perfect metaphor for his play. ''Slab Boys'' is about working-class boys who, while engaged in drab mechanical labor, thirst for escape into a color-drenched world tantalizingly situated just out of reach. For Spanky (Sean Penn), the dream is to graduate to a desk job outside the slab room, as a designer. His best pal, Phil (Kevin Bacon), hopes somehow to break into the ''real world,'' to make a career as an artist. But most of the slab boys aren't going anywhere; they're sentenced to grind away at their drudgery for life.
''Slab Boys,'' at the Playhouse, tells of one fateful day in the existence of Spanky, Phil, their cronies and their bosses. Set in 1957, the play is at once an autobiographical account of Mr. Byrne's own escape from the slab rooms and a proletarian slice-of-life drama in the contemporary British tradition. (There's a particularly strong whiff of Trevor Griffith's ''Comedians.'') It's a very uneven and ultimately less-than-satisfying evening - both in the writing and in Robert Allan Ackerman's production - but, at its best, we are taken into a gritty and exotic milieu where sassy characters fight back against their lot with both robust humor and anger.
Mr. Byrne scores when he just allows his young men to wisecrack and goof around, which is what the slab boys do whenever their superiors are not snooping. Spanky and Phil have turned their daily work routine into a veritable comedy routine; though their heroes are Elvis Presley and James Dean, they trade rat-a-tat punchlines like burlesque clowns. They even lock arms and kick up their legs whenever their zingers, whether sharp or crude, draw an inkling of blood.
The butts of their jokes and pranks are a woolly crew. They include the factory's gum-chewing sex symbol (Madeleine Potter), the runt of the slab boys (Jackie Earle Haley), a barking boss (Merwin Goldsmith), a pimply-faced underling (Brian Benben) and the inevitable crusty tea-cart matron (Beverly May). For added measure, on the day ''Slab Boys'' is set, Phil and Spanky get a shiny new victim: a blazer-wearing middle-class ''new boy,'' Alan (Val Kilmer), who is passing through the factory's depths on his preordained way to the managerial heights. Much to his tormentors' delight, Alan is the sort of fellow who carries a Parker 51 pen as if it were a badge of intellectual superiority.
While the humor, the dialogue and the atmosphere are salty and vibrant, ''Slab Boys'' becomes plodding when Mr. Byrne starts directly stating his points about his characters' domestic miseries and greater aspirations. Phil soliloquizes at artificial length about his suicidal, alcoholic mother and announces his identification with Giotto once too often. Alan, who turns out to be less of a stuffed shirt than he first appears, is too rhetorically inspirational when he implores Phil to move on to pursue his artistic calling.
We're also aware of the grinding wheels of Mr. Byrne's plot, which relies heavily on messages and phone calls from outside. Much of the narrative is contrived and, in Act II, it's padded. Once the forestalled climax arrives, the author unveils some sudden character reversals that are as bogus as the ambiance is authentic.
''Slab Boys'' has been previously produced Off Broadway at the Hudson Guild. I didn't see that version, but I wonder if the play benefited from being performed in a tiny house. The stage at the Playhouse is so expansive that the set, wonderful as it is, looms over the cast like an airplane hangar. Mr. Ackerman, the first-rate director responsible for the muscular staging of the current ''Extremities,'' here seems to work overtime to create broad, fussy physical business that will help his actors grab our attention. We're often too conscious that a small, intimate play is straining to fill a big space and a full evening.
There is also an audibility problem, which may be a function of the theater's acoustics or the American cast's zealous Scottish accents, or both. Otherwise the acting is mostly good. Though the gifted Mr. Bacon, the dissolute rich kid of the film ''Diner,'' is not ideally cast as an aspiring working-class hero, he usually captures the confused Phil's mixture of yearning, self-pity and rage. Mr. Penn, of the film ''Taps,'' is perfect as Spanky, forever transforming his seething bitterness into wounding sarcasm, and Mr. Kilmer brings fine, firm shading to the seemingly placid Alan. In their smaller roles, Miss Potter, Miss May and Mr. Goldsmith also contribute lively brushstrokes to a colorful theatrical canvas that falls short of finding the shape of a finished, well-rounded work.