Don't Fence Me In

Next to an old police precinct, the dilapidated building that houses the American Theatre for Actors (ATA) signals hard-working theater artists occupied with shoestring labors of love. The building’s bathrooms will make you regret having used them; when you leave, you feel that you’ve somehow collected germs. The ceiling panels of the ATA's Sargent Theatre, covered with water stains, appear as if they might peel off during the performance. In short, ATA is the kind of off-off Broadway theater space whose artists you root for. And it’s certainly an ideal setting for prison plays. So, I’m sorry to say that Nutshell Productions’ Spend the Night in Jail, featuring jailhouse-themed plays by William Saroyan and Jean Genet, makes for a generally disappointing evening. In Saroyan’s 1941 one-act, “Hello Out There,” a drifter, simply called The Young Man (Richard Hymes-Esposito), finds himself trapped in a small-town Texas jailhouse, expecting to be lynched on a false charge of rape. He begins a tender conversation with Emily (Kerry Fitzgibbons), the jail’s young, insecure cook and dishwasher, who, intrigued by the man, has stayed past her shift to connect with him somehow.

This is the second off-off Broadway production of “Hello Out There” that I have seen in little more than a year. In both, I have had to wonder why the set designers can’t seem to get the hang of prison bar construction. In the earlier production (by a different company), the bars were wide enough for The Young Man to walk through. In this production, set designer Craig Napoliello completely kills the illusion of fenced in people by making the bars between these worlds-apart characters merely knee-high.

Mr. Hymes-Esposito barely conveys The Young Man’s sense of desperation; he’s just too calm. And he doesn’t even attempt to disguise his strong New York accent, which, oddly, works anyway. Eric Nightengale’s lighting brings portentous shadows that add a level of needed suspense to the production. Kevin McGraw, as the accuser’s husband, is serviceable but impenetrable. He doesn’t let The Young Man get into his head enough when he confronts him with his gang. Despite these problems, Robert Haufrecht’s direction is steady and keeps the play on track. Though it fails to grip as it should, it’s the shorter and better of the two productions.

Jean Genet’s “Deathwatch,” first produced in 1949, uses the same set, so now the characters are confined to only one side of the stage. Green Eyes (Raul Sigmund Julia), the alpha male of a cell of three prisoners, will be executed for murder within a month’s time. His weak and sexually fawning cell mates, Maurice (John Paul Harkins) and Lefranc (Greg Engbrecht) despise each other and fear the upheaval that Green Eyes’ death will bring to the prison’s power hierarchy. At least one of them is already considering throwing his lot in with “Snowball,” an even more powerful alpha male in the prison.

All three characters in “Deathwatch” plot against each other, in sometimes-subtle ways, big and small. However hard they try, though, their respective roles are beyond all three young actors. Though Genet (a recidivist thief who knew his way around prisons) specified keeping the action to a minimum in his own direction of the piece, Harkins and Engbrecht chase each other around the tiny cell like Moe and Curly. Though I won’t give the plot entirely away, the illusion in this production is diminished by all the physicality; a supposedly dead body heaving for breath invites snickers rather than shock. The hysteria is not aided by director Hymes-Esposito and sound designer Nightengale’s inexplicable sound effects, which include the roar of a tiger, the moans of a woman having an orgasm, and the famous Shower Scene screech music from Psycho. One of Genet’s earliest works, “Deathwatch” is a fascinating but not a great play, and this production makes it even less great.

Though the dedication and promise of this small, young troupe are apparent, you won’t want to spend your night in this jail, even as a visitor.

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