Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: The Unseen

Metromix, my steady writing gig, has been laggard about posting my work. But here's my review of Guys & Dolls, a pretty good round-up of Broadway this spring, & an article on Off-B'way's spring that my editor cut so deeply, she took credit for the writing too! MIA: my review of Our Town & several weeks-in-review pieces.

I'm assured that those'll go up soon. But the following won't, cuz it's closing this weekend. So I offer it to you here instead: a review of Craig Wright's The Unseen, playing thru Saturday at the Cherry Lane Theater.

Update: my abashed editor fixed the writing credit here. It's still heavily edited though ("The theater nexus need not stay focus in Manhattan."?). Also, they've posted my review of an incredible Our Town.


The aptest description of The Unseen, a three-hander written by Craig Wright, is “stock characters in a familiar scenario.” Over ninety minutes, two prisoners converse through the walls of their cells, playing memory games to maintain their sanity and elaborating on metaphors that the world as a prison. One holds tight to his rationalism; the other places his faith in intuition.

But every time an insight, phrase, or plot grabs your interest, it's drowned out by the echo of a prior artist. One character descibes the torture prison as “a machine that runs on human agony”, evoking Kafka's “In the Penal Colony”. Borges lurks in the descriptions of endless architecture and millennia-old conspiracies. The duo -- the tightly-wound Steven Pounders and the fussy, flighty Stan Denman -- even come to resemble Gary Sinese and John Malkovich.

There's little that's actively bad about the show (I'd quibble that the climax feels just a bit underwhelming). Pounders and Denman (husband to director Lisa) play their roles with conviction, and manage to deliver long rambling monologues as if their words were occurring to them at that moment. A third role uses gruesome imagery to show how torture harms the perpetrator as well as the victim (that is, psychologically). But The Unseen isn't much more than a series of influences, a shadow play.


That's what I wrote for Metromix. But I want to think a little more about dead metaphors. In this case, Wright uses the theatrical idioms of mid-20th century existential surrealists, AKA the Theater of the Absurd. He strips away exposition; he focuses on two characters trapped by their situation; he alternates gallows humor with outright dread and horror. In fact, there's nothing in his dramaturgy that you couldn't have seen in 1960.

Wright's also grappling with some of the same subjects as absurd playwrights (like Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, Pinter), notably injustices like torture and an absence of habeus corpus. But the context has changed: Mutually Assured Destruction, the Nazi Holocaust, and Stalinism have given way to Terrorism, Zealotry, and an umbrella of Bush's policies (domestic surveillance, enhanced interrogation, etc.).

Actually, let me amend that: the context hasn't just changed. Wright explores contemporary themes, but he completely strips them of an urgent context. All that's left us a noble-minded play that, upon reflection, has little in particular to tell us. Instead, it merely apes a fifty-year-old style. That's why I say The Unseen simulates a drama rather than actually being one.

No comments: