Why is a column that regularly sticks to emphatic descriptions of sub-cultural historical phenomena in our superlative city beginning with an invocation of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant, Oscar-winning black comedy Dog Day Afternoon? The simultaneous answers can be found here: on a sweating, disgusting, setting August sun over the Ocean Parkway neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1972; in a spare, chilled, practically prop-free black box theater on the fourth floor of West Fifty-fourth Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues; and finally, most comfortably, in the privacy of your own home and with the immediacy of Netflix to summon the movie mentioned above.
Dog Day Afternoon is a fictionalized but close-to-home retelling of a failed bank heist that occurred on August 22nd at a Brooklyn Branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank, at the corner of Avenue P and East Third Street in the Flatbush neighborhood (full disclosure: born and bred in Flatbush, REPRESENT!). The robbers, John Wojtowicz, 27, and Sal Naturile, 18, were loners, outsiders, uncomfortable around others. Wojtowicz and Naturile grabbed $213,000 but were then barricaded in by hundreds of cops, thousands of spectators, and an increasingly frenetic media circus that only grew more ferocious when it was revealed that Wojtowicz was holding up the bank in order to give the money to his gay lover for a sex change operation. The relationship between the robbers and their hostages, the attention-grabbing Wojtowicz and the dimwitted but combustible Naturile, the back-and-forth between the robbers and the cops, the cops and the Feds, the Feds and the crowds all made for six o’clock news highlights across the country. From The Boys in the Bank, a Life Magazine article by PF Kluge and Thomas Moore, Bank Manager Robert Barret recalls: "We had a kind of camaraderie. Every time he’d stress a point he’d walk around the floor three times gesturing, speaking in a real Brooklyn accent. He’d spot a police sniper outside and say, ‘What d’ya think of that sonofabitch! He really wants me, he wants me in the worst way.’ And I’d laugh and say, ‘Yeah, John, I guess he does.’ "
In the film, Wojtowicz became Sonny, and is played to the hilt by a young, vibrant, kinetic Al Pacino. Sal’s name stays the same but his age is upped so that John Cazale can destroy audiences with his trademark blank eyes charged with manic panic. Frank Pierson, the scriptwriter, wins the Oscar for best original screenplay. We won’t spoil the conclusion, but suffice to say, it sticks true to history, like the sweat down the backs of the tellers held hostage.
Lastly, and unfortunately least-ly as well, we come to the black box live performance of this piece of local history. The Barefoot Theatre Company, directed by Frank Solorzano, who placed himself in the lead as Sonny, decided to recreate the drama for the live stage. An impressive undertaking, but one that fell short of achieving true catharsis that great theater can make. The lines were all there, and then some: the adaptation utilized the article as its primary text; the actors double- and triple-played themselves (Pizza Boy / Murphy the Fed Agent / Sonny’s Disgraced Dad, etc.) and most of the men and women in this production carried a striking resemblance to the actors from the film, the Squirrel and all. In the end, even with the hard work and diligence, the atmosphere simply wasn’t charged enough. Too many things were missing — the eyes of Cazale, the fury of Pacino, the flirtation of the tellers, the exhaustion of Barret. What’s more, when dealing with such a beloved and embraced text as the original movie, too much of the stage work felt predetermined. Everyone knew what they were going to say next — they just needed their cues.
Here’s a thought, to shake loose new accounts from the confines of fidelity: Dog Day Afternoon On Ice! A bladed, leotard-clad rock opera for the film geeks and irony-lovers of today’s Brooklyn. Imagine the theatrics — Sonny performing a triple lutz while screaming “ATTICA! ATTICA!”; a quadruple pirouette by Murphy, right on the tarmac at JFK. Since this classic film is already built around the topsy-turvy hidden homosexual life of Wojtowicz, it only seems like the next logical conclusion to stage an adaptation on the skating rink. We smell a cross-marketing promotion here — produce the spectacular in Prospect Park’s own Wollman Rink, and afterwards the audience can hop on the Brighton Avenue Q train down to Ocean Parkway, to the corner of Avenue P and East Third, and visit the bank. Someone get my agent on the phone!