Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Spend The Night In Jail: Truer Tag Line Never Spoken

It is no fun to really dislike an evening at the theater. You know in your heart that a lot of people, mostly talented, have put a lot of work into the show. You traveled to the play, taken a rather skecthy elevator up to the 4th floor, and suffered the heat to watch this. You really want it to be good.
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And yet the two plays that make up the Theater Experience "Spend The Night In Jail" are not good. One is actively bad.
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“Spend the Night in Jail” is the thematic title for a theatrical evening of two one act plays, Hello Out There by William Saroyan and Deathwatch by Jean Genet. Both plays are set in a single jail cell and look at the dynamics of individuals trying to connect emotionally, even as one character in each is certain he is facing death. However, there is less commonality between the two than you expect.
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Hello Out There was written in 1941 and is the story of a man accused of raping a married woman. He admits to the intercourse, but claims it was consensual until she demanded payment. The man has been moved to another city to protect him from being lynched, although he expects the mob will find him soon enough. The jailhouse cook and janitor, a delicate and emotional marooned young woman, is drawn to him. Richard Hymes-Espositio and Kerry Fitzgibbons play the couple and are able to establish a believable connection very quickly. Mr. Hymes-Espositio plays a slick hustler and Ms. Fitzgibbons is desperate to believe there is some way out of her life, a dead end road by the time she is only 16.
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One problem is that the intimacy is built on whispered conversations. Whispered conversations in a Theater with an air-conditioner. Yes, that's a problem if you are trying to follow the story.
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As written, the drama should come from the dichotomy between the time it takes to gain the girls trust and affection, versus the rapid rate time is running out on the drifter’s life. But it does not. The drifter never seems rushed as he tries to win over the girl, his entreats of “Hurry” are just words without a lot of feeling or action behind them. The audience doesn’t feel that doom is approaching. In the end, the audience doesn’t buy into the stakes of this game.
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Somehow, maybe vainly, I don't think this is Mr. Hymes-Espositio's fault. The play depends on archetypes and shorthand out of the depression era. If you are familiar with the movies of the era, it is helpful.
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But if Hello Out There is detached from the audience, it isn’t from lack of trying. On the other hand, the second play, Deathwatch, is incomprehensible. Deathwatch was written in 1944 in French by Jean Genet. It attempts to be a study in masculinity, relationships and betrayal in prison. Due either to the translation or because the original play is dated, it does not succeed. Really not succeed.
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Two young prisoners, John Paul Harkins and Greg Engbrecht, struggle for the admiration and attention of the cell-block boss Raul Sigmund Julia, who faces death for his offenses in 2 weeks.
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There is a lot of running around, some fights and torrents of existential ramblings by the characters, but none of it connects. Without a grasp of these characters or even their motivations, then their fights, taunts and screams are meaningless to the audience. The interplay and discussions are not easy to follow, labored as they are by references to free will, duplicity and the hierarchy of evil deeds. Director Richard Hymes-Espositio (the drifter in Hello Out There) directs this show and plays up the action to keep the audience’s attention. It works for a while, but ultimately we don’t care what these characters are saying and no amount of stage fighting can hide that.
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Deathwatch is a French Existential Mess. It is a monument to the actors that they remember the lines - but in truth they could rearraign the lines randomly and it would make just as much sense.
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I passed much of my time fantasizing how much better it would be it they all used the bad Steve Martin and Peter Seller's accents from the Pink Panther.
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Spend the Night in Jail.
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Rating: So Not Me
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What works:
The sets?
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What doesn't work: The 1940's scripts (but they both don't work in different ways :-)
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What you get to brag about to your friends: Oh, it's quite a tale to tell to friends...
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