It’s a safe bet that the spare modernist sanctuary at Nativity Church on the Lower East Side hasn’t had break dancing on its floor in a while. Nor is it likely the coarser language in Bill Cain’s Stand-Up Tragedy is customary there, but those elements contribute to the intensity of Nicolas Minas’s energetic, biting revival.
Cain’s 1991 play is every bit as social-minded as the plays of Clifford Odets or Arthur Miller, and was inspired by the neighborhood around the church where, in fact, he worked while writing the play. After more than 20 years, the work shows no signs of creakiness.
In Tragedy, Cain examines a Jesuit school on the Lower East Side—Trinity Mission School—and the attempts of one optimistic teacher, Thomas Griffin (Tom Littman), who dives into deep waters to help Lee, a young Hispanic boy (Carlos Ibarra). Lee has talent as an artist (his style is tagging and street graphics, projected in black light on the church walls) that Griffin wants to foster, but the young teacher is discouraged by Father Ed Larkin (John Mazurek), the cynical principal who accepts the status quo and cautions the eager Griffin to accept “the ecology” of the students’ lives. If Griffin tries to explore their lives outside school and help them, Larkin warns, he will risk upsetting the precarious balance in place. But Griffin takes no heed, and his attempts to encourage Lee lead to ever more convoluted situations.
Cain’s intention is to get to the root of Lee’s problem, and in doing so, the play, like a Russian matryoshka doll, finds a solution only to encounter another problem inside it. The play’s focus shifts each time, as Griffin does, from Lee’s problems to those of his mother—referred to as Señora—then to those of Tyro, Lee’s brutal, simmering older brother, as he tries to pry Lee free of their influence. (Ibarra plays all three family members in a tour de force performance.)
Griffin tries to help each in turn let go of bitterness and violence and find some reason for hope. The sprawling events also include a subplot involving Henry (Sean Carvajal), who falls under the influence of Bryan Pacheco’s Ramon, a dropout who leads him into theft and an assault on another of the teachers.
Although overlong, Minas’s staging of Tragedy is visually and physically kinetic. The cast of young actors playing the students dance explosively to choreography by Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie. There’s break dancing in the aisles between the pews and on stage, as well as a reenacted basketball game and the use of choral repetition and rap. It’s a wild cocktail, but it works. At times one actor plays the chorus, at other times several speak in unison (and the actors speak with exceptionally crisp diction). There are interior monologues, assisted by Austin Smith’s varied lighting, and black lights reveal Lee’s paintings on the rear walls.
Ibarra tackles his triple duty deftly, switching on a dime from Lee to Señora to Tyro. Though he’s diminutive, he conveys the rage and power of Tyro’s fury as well as Lee’s disappointment in Griffin.
Littman is a likable hero, charting Tom’s initial optimism and his frustration as he struggles to alter the situation he has encountered, and finally his despair. Although the tension between Griffin and Larkin is the primary one, Griffin struggles with his colleagues to overcome their jadedness. Charles Baran as the nerdy but snarky teacher Kendall, who wears a bow tie, has some fight left in him. He advocates sex education, to no avail. When Kendall asks Larkin for reconsideration of the birth control issue, Larkin responds, “Do we need it?” Kendall answers: “Jose Ortiz is taking birth control pills—you tell me.” As the third teacher, Goran Ivanovski is a dour presence who finds strength in a flask to keep going.
Ultimately, Cain indicts the entire society for its failure to lift the lowest up. Griffin’s help is useless, and in a late speech, having place Señora in a shelter to protect her from Tyro, he rants despairingly against the system: “That shelter, man. It’s a human garbage dump. And it's BIG! I took one look at it and I thought, Jesus, there ought to be a government program—and then I realized: This is the government program. It’s our version of the final solution. You were right from the start, Ed. It’s the police, the federal government, Japan, us—we want it this way.” Even without firsthand knowledge of government aid programs, one suspects those words are still true.