Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Unseen

Photo/Matthew Mineal

If "to be is to be perceived," then woe for poor Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman), who have spent the last nine years limited to what little they can glean from the stone walls of their cells. As Craig Wright's latest, The Unseen, is a comically dark play, woe, too, for their "poor" torturer, Smash (Thomas Ward), who has become a prisoner of his own empathy. The mind, true to form, plays tricks on all of them, and the only thing that gets them through the day is their ability to dream.

Wallace is the logical one, playing memory games with Valdez to pass the time as he plans his escape. He's well-played by Pounders, who compensates for his tightly wound posture with his overly confident postulating. Valdez, on the other hand, is the man of faith, believing day after day in his gut that he and Wallace have been joined by a third cellmate. It's the harder role, and Denman struggles with the character's contradictions--for instance, sudden cowardice--but he manages to hold his own, particularly when it comes to being forlorn. Finally, there's Smash, a man who is so much an embodiment of action that his first instinct is not to free the men he empathizes with but to violently reduce them to a form of existence no longer recognizable as human.

These are some fine moral issues, but they are played too much for laughs. This clashes with the aesthetics, for Sarah Brown's set is cold and unyielding, Travis Watson's lighting is direct, and Dustin Chaffin's sound design is a simple buzzer that never ceases to be jarring. The lines have the glibness of Dirty Sexy Money and the meandering banter of Lost (both of which Wright has written for), but none of the depth. As a result, when Smash takes center stage and tells his prisoners that he's been shit on--literally--for being too "human," it's hard to feel where Ward's coming from. For all the gory descriptions, the fact that it's all unseen makes The Unseen play out like a G-rated Saw: moralizing without consequences.

All this makes Lisa Denman's direction somewhat heroic, as if she's tried to salvage a comedy from an abbreviated political play. Unfortunately, if there's a punchline, that too goes unseen, and without one, it's just artifice. Now we know why Beckett always threw in a banana or two: he wanted his characters to at least have the potential of slipping on the peel.

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