Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, by Brad Fraser, directed by Joe Colarco for the Kitchen Theater Company, through February 26.
In Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, Canadian playwright Brad Fraser uses tabloid materials, exploiting the popular fascinations with mass murders and serial killers to make a case for – sometimes even an indictment of – the equally popular and anguished grasping for something called true love.
The play has a complex, polyphonic structure, shot through with a leitmotif played on a variety of answering machines – whose iterated theme is, “Love me, please; call me please.” Sexual expression is portrayed as both necessary and extremely hazardous; sexual violence hovers perpetually in the shadows. Sexual acts are portrayed onstage, but acts of bloodletting take place – in strict fashion – offstage.
Director Joe Colarco has opted for a relatively abstract approach to the play – asking the audience to imagine the blood that covers one character on two different occasions, and to imagine the food being gobbled by another character during a bulimic binge. But then the actors are called upon, fairly frequently, to take off their clothes – and given the non-realistic treatment of blood and food, the nudity becomes gratuitous.
The setting that Colarco has devised for his co-scenic designers Barry Steele and Melpomme Katakolos also makes demands on the imagination of the audience. A low wall and floor that appear to be made of antiseptic ceramic tiles, with a rumpled bed in the middle, are suggestive of a morgue or a gay bathhouse – not at all inappropriate implications for some aspects of the play, but quite at odds with others.
Colarco is extremely fortunate in several of his actors, whose performances are vibrant and compelling. Chief among these is Douglas Dickerman as David, a romantic figure of a gay man, who has turned his back on a successful television career in Toronto to return home to work as a waiter in Edmonton. Dickerman is an exquisitely sensitive performer, who can turn a pause and a glance into a moment rich in meaning and implication. Outwardly cynical about the existence of anything approaching love, David represents a node of compassion and caring in a small community of people who are suffering all the ills a violent and psychopathic society is heir to.
As Benita, a psychic and prostitute, April Dlugach gives a striking performance. Functioning as a macabre chorus, she recounts stories of psychotic murders, relishing every bloody and bizarre detail. A provocative and enigmatic character, Benita courts hideous danger, but her rationale for this troublingly benign. After and encounter with one customer who had come to vent his abusive lusts, she says, “If I hadn’t been here to help him live out that fantasy, he might’ve forced it on someone – for free.”
Mark Price provides another memorable portrait as Kane, a millionaire’s son who has taken employment as a busboy, and is hopelessly in love with David’s TV persona and equally hopelessly confused about his sexual identity. There are moments of pure humor in this black theater piece, and Price is the progenitor of most of them.
Sexual identity is also a concern for Candy (Stacey Goldstein), who shares an apartment with David but is seeking that person she would like to spend all of her time with. She is drawn to Jerri (Jennifer Mendelson), but repudiates the relationship in a brutal show of homophobia, then takes refuge with Robert (Michael Grasso), who repudiates her in turn, choosing to go back to his wife and small daughter.
And finally, there is Bernie (Jesse Bush), financially successful and arrogant, but pushed to criminal extremes by his inability to act upon his love for David.
The theses are murky and questionable, but this is a work of passion and yearning. The playwright has chosen to use extremely sensational materials, but he also appears to be moved by real grief for a society of souls lost in the heart of darkness.
SoHo Playhouse, 1.5 Vimdam St., off Sixth Avenue, (212)239-4200.
There are three people. Two of them are young corporate execs, dressed almost identically -glad-handing, insincere types who enter from the rear of the theater and shake our hands, thanking us for showing up.
The third is a girl, who lies apparently dead on stage at the foot of a lifeguard’s chair. Our hotshots remove the towel from her body, and she comes to life, sporting a blue bathing suit and mounting the chair to serve as referee in 13 rounds of stylized competition the two macho types engage in.
That’s the structure of “Never Swim Alone,” a 60- minute 1987 play by Canadian writer Daniel MacIvor which is getting, at the hands of director Timothy P, Jones, a sharp, cruel production at the SoHo Playhouse. Toronto-based MacIvor is an interesting figure -a prolific playwright and a film actor who starred in last year’s “Beefcake” and this year’s “The Five Seasons.” He plays- and creates -fairly creepy types and boasts of his aEnities with the dark side of life.
‘Never Swim Alone” is an early work -it treats life as a winner-take-all competition grounded in Nietzsche, and expressing itself in everything from the color of neckties to corpses.
“The girl,” played brilliantly with amused sympathy for the quarreling males by Susan O’Connor, declares a winner at the end of each round.
Both guys are tremendous. The smooth and glib John Maria is Frank, an excessive macho type with a superior background and a trophy wife. The more uncertain Bill -uncertain in some areas only, such as height -is Douglas Dickerman, determined to push his advantage where it lies.
Their conflicts -for the most part not physical – include “Round 2: Uniform, ” in which they boast of their identical blue suits. They often speak the identical words, only differentiating themselves when they have to.
They pretend to be caring friends. They claim, in “Round 4: Friendly Advice, ” to like homes and fishing more than the other.
In “Round 6: Members Only, ” they stop making phone calls only when the girl has to judge a penis competition between them.
In the dead center of the play, “half-time,” the girl takes us back to a race the three of them indulged in one afternoon of adolescence. It ended tragically, and served somehow -it’s never clear how- to shape the events of today.
Later, the contest resumes, turning nastier as Frank insists on the class differences that separate him from his best friend, and as Bill lets slip a story of Frank’s wife ‘s adultery with their boss.
The girl’s long-ago fate grows more and more insistent, more and more present, and the present conflict features guns, only one of which is supposed to fire.
Do the two stories -the old tale of the girl and the latest account of corporate rivalry -really go together?
Not really. The play is an early and almost abstract work, whose theme was much better expressed in Neil LaBute’s” In the Company of Men. ”
But, granted its failings, “Never Swim Alone” gets a chilling, exciting production that expresses an amusing and awful vision of life.
In Daniel MacIvor’s tersely orchestrated dark comedy, two pinstripe-wearing, briefcase carrying, cliche-claring businessmen who’ve been friends and playmates since boyhood face off as adults for twelve rounds of friendly competition (who’s taller, better at his job, better endowed, etc.). The boasts and thinly veiled insults become increasingly vicious and destructive with each round, knowingly refereed by a woman who turns out to be an early causualty of their lifelong contest, a ghost from their past. The play lacks essential narrative drama, but it’s a surprisingly powerful examination of the dangers of male rivalry, and the three very good young actors (Douglas Dickerman, John Maria, and Susan O’Connor) give it a beguiling-richness.
In “Never Swim Alone,” a dazzlingly entertaining portrait of male one-upmanship that reveals the New York International Fringe Festival at its very best, Daniel MacIvor took what could have been an ordinary tragedy involving two highly competitive American men and a dead girl, and scrambled it. The end became the beginning, the beginning the end, and the middle turned into a boxing match in which battles over careers, sexual endowment and real estate (“I heard you rent”) are organized in rounds refereed by a woman in a blue bathing suit.
The result is a 45-minute triumph of formal experimentation that is slyly witty, unexpectedly suspenseful, timeless as the battle of the sexes and as quick and forceful as a heavyweight’s jab.
When it opened at the Fringe in 1999, “Never Swim Alone,” which has been brought back for a run in honor of the festival’s 10-year anniversary, drew sold-out audiences and became only the second show in the history of the Fringe Festival to transfer (the first was “Last Train to Nibroc”). Before “Urinetown” moved Off Broadway, it was arguably the biggest hit in the history of the Fringe.
Since then, hardly any playwright has been as prolific. Neil LaBute, who shares Mr. MacIvor’s brisk, spare style and a professional interest in what goes bump in the night, might be his closest competition. But while other workaholics produce the kind of uneven work that suggests writer’s block might be of some benefit, Mr. MacIvor, who also acts, directs, makes movies and, inevitably, blogs (danielmacivor.com), is remarkably consistent. About once a year, a tautly written, ingeniously constructed and teasingly mysterious new play emerges with his name on it.
So how come you’ve probably never heard of him? He has something of a cult following downtown, where most of his shows have been performed in theaters like P.S. 122. But Mr. MacIvor, 43, who was born in Nova Scotia and is better known in Canada, has never received a production in one of the large or even medium-size nonprofit theaters in New York, let alone on Broadway. He has had seven plays produced in Manhattan, most of which received positive reviews, yet he still qualifies for the Public Theater’s Under the Radar festival, which is to present his next drama, “A Beautiful View,” in January. What does a guy have to do to get above the radar?
It may be the case that Mr. MacIvor, whose minor-key tales from the dark side can be emotionally cool and occasionally schematic, just doesn’t sell tickets. I once talked to a producer of a downtown theater that was presenting one his shows, who told me bluntly: “He puts on a great show. We got good reviews and no one came.”
Also, size matters. Mr. MacIvor doesn’t write plays that naturally belong in 1,000-seat theaters. In general, they are short, quiet and highly self-conscious affairs with few actors, often just one, speaking straight at the audience.
Judging by his austere, streamlined aesthetic — apparent even in his titles, like “See Bob Run” and “In on It,” which don’t waste a syllable — you might call Mr. MacIvor the quintessential Fringe playwright, though that might sound like an insult. (Technically, he has only had two plays produced at the Fringe, “Never Swim Alone” and “See Bob Run.”) An intimate black box is a perfect setting to tell his puzzle-like dramas, which require active listening to keep up.
It’s no accident that Da Da Kamera, his Toronto-based company with a name that combines Russian and Latin, translates to “Yes Yes the Small Room.”
“Never Swim Alone,” which is being presented at the Actors’ Playhouse through Sunday, when the Fringe Festival ends, has a set consisting of three chairs, a sheet and a whistle. Timothy P. Jones staged the original 1999 production, a job Mr. MacIvor takes on with the new version, but he has made only minimal changes to the script and direction.
Douglas Dickerman and John Maria do reprises of their fierce, muscular performances as Bill and Frank, glad-handing businessmen who take turns charming the audience and putting each other down (“Are you thinner? Must just be your hair”).
Mr. MacIvor interrupts the macho posturing with bits of plot spoken straightforwardly by a mostly silent woman, here played by the sprightly Susan Louise O’Connor, who has made a career out of acting in Mr. MacIvor’s plays.
The play begins with her dead body on the floor and proceeds to investigate how she got there. This is a characteristic stratagem of Mr. MacIvor, who has always operated on the assumption that the scariest part of a scene is when the audience is waiting to see a murder, not when it happens. So he often dispenses with the dirty deed up front.
“Monster” and “Cul-de-Sac” — two creepy nonlinear solo shows that he created with Daniel Brooks and performed himself — open with a man getting killed. Even his most recent New York play, “Marion Bridge,” a poignant and well-made family drama about three melancholy sisters living in Nova Scotia, features a dead body in the other room: their mother’s on both counts.
That empathetic play, which was given a sensitive production at Urban Stages in New York last fall starring Ms. O’Connor, is as well made, naturalistic and feminine as “Never Swim Alone” is coolly nonlinear, abstract and masculine.
What unifies Mr. MacIvor’s work is its crisp, cleanly shaped sentences, filled with jargon, cliché and other reminders of the way people actually talk. But since his New York debut at the Fringe seven years ago, Mr. MacIvor has demonstrated a remarkable range. He has written convincingly about men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, and with “Marion Bridge” he showed that he could write more than just monologues.
He may continue opening up his aesthetic with “His Greatness,” a forthcoming three-character drama about the last days — there’s death again — of a Southern playwright. It will have a reading in the fall at the Stratford Festival in Ontario.
Mr. MacIvor is continuing to experiment — but with a more conventional, perhaps more mature form, the kind of drama that gets produced by artistic directors at established New York theaters who have ignored him in the past. The question is, will they take notice?
“Never Swim Alone” continues through Sunday at Actors’ Playhouse, 100 Seventh Avenue South, at Fourth Street, Greenwich Village; (212) 279-4488,fringenyc.org.
In one of the first scenes of The Action Against Sol Schumann, a flack for the Reagan White House does damage control for the Gipper’s controversial visit to a German cemetery in Bitburg by pointing out that only a small percentage of the people buried there are SS soldiers. Aaron Schumann, the confrontational son of the eponymous character, responds that Reagan can spend 98 seconds honoring the deceased Germans as long as he also “spits for two” seconds. That scene, like so many others in the play, is likely to offend almost everyone: Reagan’s detractors will find it too balanced to be damning while ardent conservatives will be upset at the dramatization of one of their hero’s most embarrassing moments. But the ability to flip a coin and make sure that it lands on both sides of the issue makes playwright Jeffrey Sweet the right theatrical magician to take on the true story of the effort to deport Jacob Tannenbaum, a devout Jew and Nazi collaborator. (“Sol Schumann” is a fictionalized version of Tannenbaum.)
The play is hardly about its title character at all; rather, it concerns both the moral support and condemnation that surrounds him. At the center of this are Schumann’s sons Aaron (Douglas Dickerman) and Michael (Nathan M. White). The activist Aaron has spent his life pursuing people Nazi war ciminals; a leftist writer chronicles his globe-hopping efforts in regular columns in various newspapers and magazines while a daughter of a Holocaust survivor joins him on most of these missions and offers legal representation. The revelation that his father was a kapo known as “the ogre of Ordenhaupt” causes Aaron and his confidantes to reevaluate their pieties. The assimilated Michael, never a Nazi hunter, only thinks of how he can help keep the family together.
The playwright’s insights are varied, strong, and unsentimental. For example, one scene shows a prominent leader in the Jewish community trying to convince a judge to drop his case against Schumann, even though he calls the man “a monster,” because he believes that media attention will reflect badly on the Jewish people and, by extension, on Israel — a state founded as a refuge for Jews against genocide. If Jews can kill other Jews, the argument goes, what’s the value of a state based on ethnic nationalism? This may be the playwright’s conscience talking, but the very fact that Sweet wrote The Action Against Sol Schumann shows how misguided he believes the argument to be.
Sweet understands the concept of moral paradox and gives all of his characters interesting conflicts. The writer Diane (Catherine Lynn Dowling) forms an attachment with Aaron that prevents her from exploring the Schumann case as deeply as her profession mandates. When lawyer Leah (Susan O’Connor) takes up Sol Schumann’s case, she’s torn between her legal principles and her obligations to her survivor parents — as well as to her sometime lover, Aaron. Ambivalent but never fickle, Sweet makes the case for both swift justice and forgiveness only to repudiate both options. Yet the survivors who want nothing more than to kill or deport the protagonist aren’t “Shylocked”; that’s to say, their quest for justice is never presented as unreasonable.
Unfortunately, sentimental acting and directing often get in the way of the straightforward writing. Director Amy Feinberg has some cast members remain on stage to observe the proceedings even when they aren’t in particular scenes, and many of them gaze compassionately at the main character during his more troubling moments. The effect is probably the opposite of what was intended: The audience is less inclined to pity Schumann when outsiders regard him so kindly. The performances are uneven but the better actors deliver the material with a hard edge. Among the standouts are Herbert Rubens as Sol, Douglas Dickerman as Aaron, Susan O’Connor as Leah, and Catherine Lynn Dowling as Diane.
Moral people do not need to be told how to feel about the Shoah; rather, a play on the subject should surprise audiences if it is to resonate. When the production doesn’t fight against it, The Action Against Sol Schumann presents familiar issues in inventive and powerful ways.
By Adam Feldman
When the actors in a play break character to tell me where a scene takes place or the name of the person who is about to speak, I tend to recoil. So it was at the beginning of Jeffrey Sweet’s The Action Against Sol Schumann, a work of fiction inspired by true events, dressed up, apparently, to feel like docudrama.
As the play proceeded, however, the intensity and significance of the moral issues presented made me less and less aware of, and uncomfortable with, the artifice of the format. Finally, the question that I, as reviewer of Sol Schumann, had to answer was a mirror of the one asked in the play (though not nearly so weighty): is a play what it says or what it does?
What The Action Against Sol Schumann says is, briefly, that judgments about other human beings—about who they really are, about what we’d do in their shoes—are dangerous, scary things. The play tells the story of an old man named Sol Schumann—an observant Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn; a Holocaust survivor. Sweet’s efficient exposition quickly reveals that Sol has two sons: Aaron, the elder, is a substitute teacher, unmarried, devout, and activist (particularly in Survivors’ organizations and politics); Michael, the younger, is married to a Gentile named Kate and has distanced himself from his cultural and religious roots. They’re a close family nevertheless; and then suddenly their situation is entirely transformed when Sol is accused, by more than one person, of having been a kapo, one of the Jews selected by the Nazis to oversee the slave laborers in the concentration camps. Proceedings are launched by the INS to investigate whether Sol lied about his past when he emigrated to the United States; if this can be proved, Sol faces possible deportation.
Aaron and Michael react as we expect them to, which is to say that Aaron is at first repulsed by what he now knows about his father (though he does come around to helping him); Michael, the outsider, is drawn closer as the rest of the world turns away. (This by-the-numbers plotting is part of what The Action Against Sol Schumann does, so to speak; that’s why my feelings about this piece are so mixed.) The sons enlist the aid of attorney Leah Abelson, who is Aaron’s almost-girlfriend and herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, which means that she faces a quandary of her own, explaining to her still-living mother why she is defending Sol. As for Sol himself, he never denies what he did, though he always justifies it in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils to ensure the survival of as many people—himself, obviously, included—as possible.
What’s powerful about this play is the fairly detached way that the myriad troubling and unanswerable questions are posed. Sweet makes us confront very tough issues while offering neither guidance nor solace to help us deal with them. Is Sol culpable? Do the lives he may have saved during the war offset the others he betrayed? Do his subsequent actions matter? Can we understand, let alone judge, such a man? Should other survivors try to? Should our government? Should an old man be deported after forty blameless years in the U.S., simply because he told a lie of omission when he arrived here as a refugee?
What weakens the play, though, is the excessive familiarity of its subjects and themes. From Q.B. VII to Judgment at Nuremberg, Nazi war criminals have had substantial airing in our popular culture; The Action Against Sol Schumann doesn’t add a great deal to the mix. And in terms of family dynamics, I was reminded of All My Sons more than once during The Action; I’m not sure that Sweet ultimately has anything startling or new to say about children who discover that their fathers aren’t who they think they are, either.
But it is in its emotional barrenness—the result of the documentary format that Sweet decided to adopt for this piece—that the play finally sort of fails for me as drama. We never really get inside anybody’s head here; everything that happens always seems to be at the mythic/archetypal level. The evening was, for me, an intellectual exercise—an engaging one, to be sure. But I was never moved by anything on stage.
Which brings me back to my own conundrum, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Do I endorse Sol Schumann or deride it? It turns out that my choice is relatively simple: I tell you simply to see the play for yourself, because the issues it raises are so powerful and so important that they are always worthy of examination.
Amy Feinberg’s matter-of-fact staging takes its cue from Sweet’s script, arraying the actors as observers on stage throughout. Some of the actors do outstanding work, by the way, notably Susan O’Connor as Leah, Douglas Dickerman as Aaron, and Nathan M. White as Michael.
Forty years after the liberation of the German death camps, Sol Schumann (Rubens) seems indistinguisbable from other Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn-attending shul regularly, sharing Sabbath dinners every week with his two adult sons. But Schumann has a monstrous past: He served the Nazis as a kapo, one of the Jews appointed to discipline fellow prisoners. (He was just following orders, he claims, and survival can be a brutal task.) Jeffrey Sweet’s The Action Against Sol Schumann, inspired by a real case that shook New York’s Jewish community in the 1980s,lays out the issues raised by this history with the dry diligence of a competent trial lawyer.
In Amy Feinberg’s production for the Hypothetical Theatre Company, the show’s ensemble often stays onstage to watch insilent judgment as the play unfolds in a succession of brief, expositional scenes; Sweet tactfully leaves Schumann’s actual crimes to the audience’s imagination. The play is almost all exterior and the effect is less chilling than chilly; scenes that could have pulsed with emotion are rendered instead as stiff point-counterpoint. Douglas Dickerman generates some passion as Schumann’s self-righteous, Jewisher-than-thou son, and the always invaluable Susan O’Connor crafts a full character out of Sol’s lawyer. But by the time The Action Against Sol Schumann reaches its rather melodramatic finale, we have learned surprisingly little about the man at its core. That Sweet’s well-intentioned play lacks action is problem enough; surely it shouldn’t be also be short on Sol Schumann.
Moral judgment becomes such a dangerous game in ”The Action Against Sol Schumann” by Jeffrey Sweet that the play is a profoundly unsettling experience. This comes as a surprise, since Mr. Sweet’s story is closely modeled on the federal government’s internationally reported move in 1987 to deport Jacob Tannenbaum, a Holocaust survivor living in Brooklyn, after it was discovered that he had been a kapo, or supervisor, in a Nazi camp, where he brutalized Jewish prisoners.
It was one thing to hear the arguments about the issues in that case, but it is quite another to be drawn into the personal agonies of a deeply religious old man, his two sons, their families and friends and the old man’s accusers, as these people are vividly created by an admirably disciplined acting ensemble.
Most of the characters here end up crippled by discoveries about themselves that they cannot avoid, or endure. The old man has obliterated from his mind what he did. One inflexibly idealistic son lives to correct wrongs until his father’s past catches up. An indifferent son has shed his Jewish identity only to find it rebounding in the form of disgrace. The rabbi and his congregation clutching their Torah banish the old man from their midst. The old man’s accuser, another survivor, is driven mad by his lust for vengeance.
A defender, a former prisoner in the camp, argues that the old kapo saved many lives there, but she believes that his brutality is explained by a transformation of his personality by his own suffering at the hands of his Nazi captors.
In 90 minutes of accusation and argument, these people shed all certainties and seem lost to themselves, leaving the audience with reason to wonder what ”survivor” can possibly mean. In dramatic terms, the final crisis of the play is botched. But that hardly matters; the great emotional and intellectual journey we have made almost makes the stage itself disappear from memory.
Review: ‘The Unseen’ at the Road Theatre
My idea of a perfect theatergoing month would be one in which twenty shows out of twenty would merit a WOW! review. I realize that this would only bolster the erroneous impression that, as one person put it, ÒSteven Stanley has never met a show he didnÕt like,” but IÕve never understood reviewers who consistently pan what they see and then keep going back for more. I go to the theater because, quite frankly, nothing makes me happier.
Over the past few years, I’ve become rather adept at selecting productions likely to make me say “Wow!”-and then stand up and cheer. If the company producing the show and the playwright whose work is being performed have good track records, I’m likely to enjoy what I see.
There’s no better 99-seat theater company in the L.A. area than The Road. Each and every Road Theatre production over the past two years (The Bird And Mrs. Banks, And Neither Have I Wings To Fly, The Friendly Hour, and Lady) has gotten a WOW! from this reviewer, and before that there were Backwards In High Heels, Bunbury, and Ouroboros, to name just three other great productions. Lady happens also to have been written by Craig Wright, and while I haven’t followed Wright’s TV hits Dirty Sexy Money or Six Feet Under, I have loved every Craig Wright play I’ve seen, and there have been a bunch. Recent Tragic Events, Grace, The Pavilion, Orange Flower Water, and Lady are all plays I would eagerly go back and see again. Wright’s plays are engrossing, thought-provoking, and invariably unique.
When I heard that The Road would be producing Wright’s The Unseen, with Wright as director no less, I was needless to say excited about the news and looking forward to the production.
I’m pretty aware of my likes (and dislikes) in theater. Plays described as “surreal,” “experimental,” and “avant garde” are likely not to be found on my upcoming schedule, nor are plays with a high dose of violence. That being said, The Road’s description of The Unseen (“Imprisoned by a totalitarian regime and mercilessly tortured for unknown crimes, Wallace and Valdez live without hope of escape or release.”) did send up warning signals, but being that it was a Road Theatre production of a Craig Wright play, The Unseen seemed worth a look-see.
First off, the good news. The performances are uniformly outstanding and the design truly striking.
Darin Singleton does powerful work as Wallace, the more cynical and pragmatic of the two prisoners, despite dialog that is frequently more stilted than poetic or natural-sounding. LA Weekly Award winner Matt Kirkwood (unforgettable in Lady) is heartbreaking as Valdez, the more childlike and optimistic of the two. Both actors must make us believe that they are in tightly enclosed places and not able to see each other, even though Desma Murphy’s prison cell set has no walls surrounding the two detainees. Both must convince us that they have been imprisoned for years and that they have undergone horrendous systematic, daily torture. At this, both actors succeed.
As their jailer/torturer Smash, Douglas Dickerman is a commanding and darkly funny presence, and the actor has one hell of a gruesome monolog to deliver, which he does to stunning effect.
Murphy’s surrealistic set design is a perfect fit for Wright’s strange narrative and is matched by Jeremy Pivnick’s as always excellent lighting. Elizabeth Brand’s costumes (orange prison uniforms for Wallace and Valdez and a white one for Smash, looking like something out of a slaughterhouse) are just right for Wright’s tale.
Then there’s David B. Marling’s sound design, a cacophony of the loudest and most strident buzzes and clangs heard in The Road or likely any other L.A. theater-ever. These almost unbearably shrill noises, which are apparently there to announce the daily prison routine, would seem also designed to drive the prisoners stark, raving mad (if their daily doses of torture haven’t already done so). For audiences members, they can make sitting through The Unseen’s blessedly short running time (under seventy minutes) a nerve-wracking experience to say the least. It’s a great sound design, but not one I’d like to hear again.
Wright’s script is deliberately, frustratingly ambiguous. We do not know where this prison is, we do not know who the two prisoners are, we do not know why they are in prison. And though prison torture is a horrible reality of the world we live in, The Unseen takes place in some surreal Kafkaesque universe which makes it hard to believe or identify with any of the characters.
I admire and applaud the work of Singleton, Kirkwood, Douglas, the design team, and even Wright’s direction. This is a quality production, make no mistake about that, and I would guess that there will be theatergoers who will rave about both the play and the production. StageSceneLA readers with tastes similar to mine may have a different reaction.
Review: ‘The Unseen’ at the Road Theatre
THE UNSEEN In some unspecified country, two prisoners, Valdez (Matt Kirkwood) and Wallace (Darin Singleton) have been held for years in isolation cells. They are close enough to talk to but not to see each other. They don’t know why they have been incarcerated, or by whom. They are constantly questioned and tortured, and subjected to nerve-shattering noises. They spend their days carrying out private rituals, and playing word and memory games in an attempt to preserve their sanity. The only mortal they see is the guard Smash (Douglas Dickerman), who is both torturer and caretaker. Craig Wright’s allegorical new play keeps its larger meaning sketchy, perhaps because it lacks a concrete context. It’s interesting mainly for the interaction of the two men, and the strange and whimsical nature of the guard, Smash. Wright directs his play skillfully on Desma Murphy’s handsomely bleak set. Kirkwood and Singleton provide richly detailed portraits of the two men who comfort themselves with escape fantasies, and Dickerman creates a bizarre figure as the guard who hates his charges because he can’t help feeling their pain as he tortures them.