"They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" at the Greenway Court Theatre is a vibrantly realized stage adaptation of Horace McCoy's Depression-era novel.
Adapters Rick Sparks and Gary Carter faithfully preserved the essence of the 1935 original, which also was adapted for a 1969 movie. In his shrewd environmental staging, director Sparks casts us, the audience, as the spectators at a dance marathon. Set designer James Eric has reconfigured the Greenway Court into an old-fashioned dance pavilion and more. The back rooms of the dance hall are also visible in Eric's ingenious, multitiered set. All the superb design components are integral to the period ambience, from Tom Meleck's smoky lighting to Shon LeBlanc's '30s costumes to Stephen Ratliff's retro makeup and hair design.
If the evening sometimes feels like a long existential wallow, blame the source, not the messengers. The novel occasionally plunges into the lurid sensationalism of the pulp magazines for which McCoy wrote, and the adapters don't wholly avoid a self-consciously seamy tone.
Yet this detracts only slightly from the dramatic riches of this ambitious production. Andrew Prine makes for a skin-crawling Rocky, the sleazy emcee. As the spunky but doomed Gloria, Gretchen German gives a bravely no-frills performance opposite Paul Marius as her idealistic dance partner. Eileen T'Kaye, Audrey Rapoport, John Cassini and Robert Ruth are also standouts. But then, the whole cast is a tonic, a distillation of pure talent that should be bottled and preserved.
* "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 19. $18-$22. (323) 930-9304. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.