Two men in grim, adjacent cells talk to each other through prison walls. They have been incarcerated for years and are repeatedly tortured for information—or rather, initially for information, but now pointlessly, as a distraction to their tormentors. The men in this Kafkaesque nightmare are named Valdez and Wallace. Wallace calls Valdez “Mr. Valdez,” but Valdez is more casual and uses “Wallace.” To pass the time, they speculate on what they don’t know—The Unseen of the title. Dramatist Craig Wright’s Kafkaesque situation invites some comparison with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, whose characters also wait in uncertainty and near despair for some resolution to their fate. The Unseen is bleak but not depressing, and it feels especially timely and universal in Lisa Denman's taut, riveting production. The men might be in Abu Ghraib, or Guantánamo, or any number of hellholes around the world. Their names, too, suggest a breadth of places the action might be occurring. "Valdez" calls to mind a banana republic; "Wallace" might be American or British, of which neither nationality has escaped accusations of torture in the struggles with Iraq and the IRA, respectively; and their guard, Smeija, has a distinctly Slavic name that summons up the brutality in the Balkans in the 1990s.
To pass the time, Wallace and Valdez exchange words in shorthand about their torture: “Trips to the sink, making knots … twice, the whole drooling gang…” Wright leaves it to the listener to surmise the specifics of the horrors they endure. The men play an old game that starts “I went to the ocean and took…,” and they list various objects whose names must be in alphabetical order. They speculate on whether the prison layout is irregular or not. “We don’t know the structures or rules,” says a worried Valdez. “We don’t know the grand design.” (His point is skillfully demonstrated by Sarah Brown in her asymmetrical set.)
Wallace moves objects on the floor of his cell—saucers and a piece of chalk and other objects—in a pattern that only he understands. Suddenly he announces that they must escape that day, that all the signs point to its being their only chance. But a visit from the hulking, black-masked thug Smeija, nicknamed “Smash,” reveals that Wallace’s sanity hangs on a thin thread.
Smash is not only a guard but one of their torturers, and Wright indulges in pitch-black humor as Smash (played with frustration and intensity by Thomas Ward) complains that he’s been too nice to them and is being punished with double duty on his birthday. Wallace tries to butter him up—“We’re here for you”—but it doesn’t work. “All you people think about are yourselves,” fumes their anguished inquisitor. “No one with a heart is safe around you people.”
Steven Pounders as Wallace captures his character's suspicion and confidence, with a streak of arrogance; he’s not sure that Valdez isn’t a spy. Valdez (Stan Denman) has opposite qualities: he is more upbeat and hopeful, certain that someone is in the adjoining cell and aching to make contact. He’s open enough to admit that his captors don’t trust him because they think he lies—even though his admission jeopardizes Wallace’s trust in him.
As time passes, Valdez exhibits his own delusions with a theory of a vast array of tunnels under the earth with the entry points in graveyards that is just as chilling as the moment that Wallace accidentally learns that his hope of escape is built on an illusion.
Both actors, superb in their roles, seem to have done their own makeup just as superbly. They look like victims of brutal beatings, with scars, welts and bruises disfiguring their bodies; costumer Carl Booker’s torn and shredding clothing matches their skill.
Although the physical action is limited, Wright’s dialogue takes up the slack with unexpected lyricism, from the story of a button that Valdez’s mother has taught him, to Smash’s gruesome descriptions of what he has done to a prisoner. And his ending suggests, hopefully, that somehow humanity can never be extinguished, that an unseen spark survives even in the most inhumane circumstances. The play may be short, but it packs a wallop.