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Spend the Night in Jail – "Hello Out There" and "Deathwatch" - Off Broadway Theater Review

 

SPEND THE NIGHT IN ACTING CLASS

 

Picture – Spend the Night in Jail – photo by Ali Yahin BecerenTheater Review

by Alexander Harrington 

published May 7, 2010 

 

Spend the Night in Jail

now playing Off Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors 

through May 23 

 

Spend the Night in Jail pairs two one-act prison/jail dramas: William Saroyan’s “Hello Out There” and Jean Genet’s “Deathwatch.”  The style of the Saroyan play sets the tone of the whole evening: earnest, realistic, and clichéd.

 

In the film industry, there are movies that go straight to video, bypassing a theatrical release.  The stage equivalent goes straight to acting class.  There are numerous plays made up of scenes between two relatively young characters that people who have taken such a class would prefer never to see again as long as they live.  I have seen “Hello Out There” staged twice: once in a student-directed one-act festival at my high school and once as a student’s final project in a directing class I taught.  It belongs to a common category of mid-Twentieth Century drama: realistic one-acts in which two characters (in addition to “Hello Out There’s” two leads, there are two secondary characters and some supernumeraries) connect and reveal secrets.  Members of this species include Albee’s “Zoo Story,” Leonard Melfi’s  “Birdbath,”  several one-acts by William Inge, and numerous Twilight Zone episodes. 

 

The play, directed by Robert Haufrecht, is shorter than I remember, and there is dialogue missing.  I assume Haufrecht has cut the script.  While I am grateful for his doing so, I am unable to determine whether Saroyan or Haufrecht is at fault for the implausibility of the play.  The Young Man, a gambler jailed on a false charge of rape, almost immediately proposes marriage to Emily, the browbeaten, inarticulate cook in this Texas jail.  I initially thought he was doing so to worm his way to freedom, but a few minutes later (I am not exaggerating the brevity of the time-lapse), he gives her $80 (a considerable sum of money in 1941, when the play was written) to escape her downtrodden existence.  This strains credulity.  Given that I attended a very early performance (the third), it is possible that lines were dropped.

 

Picture – Spend the Night in Jail – photo by Ali Yahin BecerenThe Young Man in “Hello Out There” is “Deathwatch” director Richard Hymes-Esposito, who is in his 20s or 30s; Emily is the very young Kerry Fitzgibbons, who could plausibly be a drama student.  These actors are good, judged by the very basic standards of a mid-level acting class:  their performances are, for the most part, believable and unforced (there is one moment in which Ms. Fitzgibbons’ mooning over Mr. Hymes-Esposito slips into caricature); however, these performances do not rise to the level of a full-production.  This is apparent in the first moments of the show when the Young Man repeats, “Hello out there!”  Hymes-Espositio does not force himself to yell.  If this were an early rehearsal or a first presentation in a class, he would be absolutely right not to cry out, if doing so would be pushed and contrived.  By opening night, however, Hymes-Esposito should be able to convincingly holler so as not to belie his fellow actor’s line “Why are you hollering?” (I may be paraphrasing this line).  If he had not gotten to that point, Haufrecht should have just said “Shout, damn it!”  These young actors’ sincerity is admirable in terms of fundamental craft, but it is stultifying for an audience:  it is a black hole that sucks the energy out of the auditorium.  Also, the plausibility of the romantic connection between the characters is not helped by the fact that Fitzgibbons plays Emily as such a terrorized hick that she makes To Kill a Mockingbird’s Mayella Ewell seem like Simone de Beauvoir.

 

Kevin McGraw, who plays the husband of the woman the Young Man is falsely accused of raping, is, as the British would say, quite the other thing: his performance is forced and contrived.  To indicate agitation he heaves his chest and speaks breathlessly.   

 

Picture – Spend the Night in Jail – photo by Ali Yahin BecerenThis is first time that I have seen “Deathwatch.”  I expect a Genet play to be searing; this performance of “Deathwatch” is not.  Though this staging is inadequate, its lack of corrosiveness may not be the production’s fault.  The play’s depiction of the homoerotically-charged jockeying for position within a prison hierarchy may have lost its sting as, over the years, portrayals of the subterranean world of underclass brutality have become more graphic. 

 

If Mr. Hymes-Esposito and Ms. Fitzgibbons would have gotten “A”s in acting class, the cast of “Deathwatch” would have fared less well.  Initially Raul Sigmund Julia (son of the late, great Raul Julia), as Green Eyes, the cell’s alpha-con, exudes an intense and riveting energy, but soon he, like John Paul Harkins as the cell’s pretty-boy punk, falls into an unconvincing delivery of lines bordering on the recitation of memorized line-readings.  In terms of credibility, Greg Engbrecht as Mr. Harkins’ rival for Green Eyes’ attention would get a “B.”

 

Picture – Spend the Night in Jail – photo by Ali Yahin BecerenThe set by M. Napoliello holds out promise for the production design.  There are no flats in the cell area: the stage’s concrete back and stage left walls have been painted in institutional green and off-white, with which the brown and off-white flats of the waiting area seamlessly blend.   Unfortunately, the props for both plays, and the sound design and costume for “Deathwatch,” do not live up to this promise.  The aforementioned set establishes an expectation of very detailed realism.  This expectation is broken when, in “Hello Out There,” Mr. McGraw pulls out a gun with a barrel too narrow to be functional (my is guess is that it’s a starter’s pistol).   The production elements of “Hello Out There” are meticulous compared with those of “Deathwatch.”  Most glaring is the fact that, while the play takes place in France and is riddled with references to France, Mr. McGraw’s prison guard has an American flag patch on his uniform.  When Green Eyes commands his two lickspittles to draw lots, he reaches behind a low partition that presumably masks a toilet, and pulls off some plastic deli spoons (that have been taped to the partition) to serve as the lots.  Why there would be plastic spoons taped next to a toilet is beyond me.  Might I suggest matches as a better choice for the lots?

 

The guard’s uniform and the deli-utensils merely indicate incompetence on the part of the uncredited costume designer and prop master.  The sound suggests that designer Eric Nightingale is out of his ever-loving mind.  Certain lines prompt non-realistic sound effects.  It is entirely possible that the script calls for these sound effects – Genet was no realist.  But the choices for these cues are jaw-droppingly bad.  During one fight, the shower music from Psycho is played.  When one of the inmates is strangled to death, the factory whistle from the original production of Sweeney Todd is sounded – I could, in fact, faintly hear the first strains of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” before the cue was cut off.

 

Grant yourself a reprieve, and skip Spend the Night in Jail.

 

alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Ali Yahin Beceren

 

 
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