Before "Cabaret," before "Chicago," before related seductions from the dark side of hungry humanity, there was "The Threepenny Opera." With its shark bite from Bertolt Brecht and the haunting sour-key harmonies of Kurt Weill, the Weimar Republic smash of 1928 took its glower and its glee to the alley beyond society's well-upholstered hypocrites.
Broadway has had two big disappointing attempts at this mother of all alienation dramas in recent memory -- once with Sting in 1989, the other with Alan Cumming in 2006. But not until the Atlantic Theater Company's new intimate version, directed and choreographed by image-visionary Martha Clarke, have we had a high-profile "Threepenny" that captures the pleasures and critiques of corruption, subversions and debauchery without feeling like a post-decadence fashion show.
This is a rough and slinky production, condensed to a little more than two hours. It is relatively free of tricked-up effects, unless you count the charismatic, absurdly well-behaved bulldog that licks corpses, hangs out with the gangsters and, spoiler alert, plays Queen Victoria at the coronation with a killer deadpan.
This is an underworld of shadows and appetites, designed by Robert Israel with a cozy upstage nook for the expert oompah, hurdy-gurdy jazz band and crannies for loiterers and bordello ladies to do what they do with graphic erotic allure.
Macheath, the vicious, seemingly irresistible prince of Victorian London con men, is played with less magnetism and vocal heft than needed by Michael Park, though he does have the dapper look of Rhett Butler in spats.
For upright, downright depravity, we have F. Murray Abraham and Mary Beth Peil as the Peachums, unsentimental proprietors of the shop that outfits the enterprising poor in beggar clothes each day. He calls it the "human pity business," and, as people harden against empathy, business is hurting. Laura Osnes, fresh off her Cinderella on Broadway, finds a bold new place for her expressive soprano as Polly, their daughter and Mack's newest bride.
Sally Murphy dominates the second half as Jenny, Mack's favorite tart, who sings "Pirate Jenny" and "Solomon Song" with a dark, high, crystalline sweetness.
Clarke uses less nudity than she has in other memorable work, but the gnawing heat and the cold heart are palpable. She uses the 1954 Marc Blitzstein adaptation, Brechtian half-curtains but no projected titles. None are needed.
WHAT "The Threepenny Opera"
WHERE Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20th St.
INFO $75; 866-811-4111; atlantictheater.org
BOTTOM LINESmall, rough and slinky "Threepenny"