Photos 1 and 2: Richard Hymes-Esposito and Kerry Fitzgibbons in “Hello Out There”
Photos 3-6: Raul Sigmund Julia, Greg Engbrecht, & John Paul Harkins in “Deathwatch”
GENET AND SAROYAN MEET UP IN NYC with “Spend The Night in Jail”
American William Saroyan and Frenchman Jean Genet are considered to be two of the finest, or at least most provocative, playwrights of the 20th century. Their work, however, is only rarely seen on the stage today. Nutshell Productions is presenting something of a novelty: two prison-themed, one-act plays shown together as “Spend The Night in Jail“: Saroyan’s “Hello Out There” and Genet’s “Deathwatch”, both set on the sparse stage of New York City’s Sargeant Theater. The end result is mixed.
Directed by Robert Haufrecht, “Hello Out There”– originally written in 1942– is set in a tiny prison in Matador, Texas. A young man (well-acted by Richard Hymes-Esposito) is beaten and falsely jailed for the alleged rape of a married woman. When he awakens, he’s greeted by the forlornly longing gaze of the prison cook, Emily (also well-acted, by Kerry Fitzgibbons). Apparently, Matador must be a very small town; Emily sets her sad eyes on the jailed man, and love happens fast. Fearful and going stir-crazy from isolation (He states he‘s as “lonesome as a coyote“. Hmm… I thought coyotes traveled in packs.), the young man nevertheless brings out the girl’s much-welcomed smile and seduces her with dreams about the two of them escaping to “San Francisca” (sic)– if, of course, he can somehow make it out alive. The central themes of “Hello Out There“– loneliness (usually a two-way street) and the torment of unrequited longing– come through in a big way, and in its brief running time, “Hello Out There” packs a wallop.
Doing double duty, Richard Hymes-Esposito directs Genet’s “Deathwatch”. Written in 1947, it’s perhaps the better known of the two plays, and it’s significantly more animated than the armadillo-paced “Hello Out There”. Openly gay and having served time in prison, Genet ostensibly knew quite a bit about the psychodynamics behind men in jail: the hierarchy of power and the latent homosexual tendencies of the inmates…and, most dramatically, how the two merge. “Deathwatch” features three prisoners: Green Eyes, Lefranc (AKA Georgie), and Maurice. Green Eyes (Raul Sigmund Julia), facing death for murder of his girlfriend, is the “top cock”, if you will, of his cell. He‘s admired and respected by the guards and fellow inmates for his “toughness”, and also apparently lusted after by his cellmates: subtly by Lefranc (Greg Engbrecht, who plays the role with the pent-up pressure of a covered boiling pot), and more blatantly by the boyish, high-strung, somewhat effete (Dare I say ‘flamboyant’?) Maurice (John Paul Harkins). Although the basic human emotions in Genet’s work haven’t changed over time. evolving sensibilities both in society and on the stage in the last decade have. A major challenge for these actors– and it’s a big one, especially for the one playing the illiterate Green Eyes– is having their characters spouting out Genet’s cerebral, pseudo-intellectual dialogue and still making it believable that they are dangerous criminals. Unfortunately, it’s a test these young players only pass halfway. Another challenge is keeping the simmering male-to-male sexuality below the surface. Not having seen any interpretations which may be closer to Genet‘s original intent, I‘d have to assume that even as these jailbirds are admiring the male beauty of an African-American inmate or even touching each other, there was some degree of emotional restraint, given the taboo of homosexuality in that era. Again, finding that balance would be a challenging task for any thespian. The actors– especially Harkins as Maurice– sometimes seem to veer into overacting or even camp– and it comes across as more of a parody of Genet’s work or of jail life than the real thing. Some nice directorial touches, like having a character’s tattoo exposed as an ink drawing– are diminished by some bewilderingly anachronistic bits, like Green Eyes’ bright orange jumpsuit; or when one of the characters flashes a pack of Marlboro Lights. Artistic license can be a good thing… but against the indisputable time period established by Genet’s words (The method of capital punishment is the guillotine, after all…), the effect is incongruous. Despite the efforts of the hard-working cast, “Deathwatch” feels, at times, like hard labor.
“Spend the Night in Jail” is playing through May 23rd at The American Theatre of Actors at The Sergeant Theater, 314 W. 54th Street, 4th Floor. Visit http://www.SpendtheNightinJail.com for tickets and more info.