By Craig Wright. Directed by Lisa Denman. Cherry Lane Theatre. (CLOSED)
Craig Wright's The Unseen, about two men imprisoned and tortured for unknown reasons, is compared unfavorably by critics to works by Kafka and Beckett. Most critics find the play largely ineffective for the lack of context and violence described in gruesome detail, but never shown. The one dissenter, Time Out's Adam Feldman, writes, "If the writing is good enough, violence needn't be seen to be believed." The reviews are kindest to the actors--Steven Pounders, Stan Denman, and especially Thomas Ward as their torturer.
Edit: Additional positive reviews pushed the grade from a C to a C+.
(Josh Sherman) The Unseen, for any self-respecting theater snob, demands to be anything but. A riveting example of deceptive simplicity, The Unseen, fueled by the dazzling wordplay of playwright Craig Wright, turns solitary confinement into a potboiler thriller that not only sucks you in, but puts a choke hold on you until it has your undivided attention. With masterful direction by Lisa Denman and terrific, spellbinding performances from a first-rate cast, the Cherry Lane Theater might just have on its hands a sellout for as long as it wants one. The Unseen is a darkly comic, deeply thought-provoking, emotionally disturbing, and soul-searching masterpiece that will resonate with you for far longer than the blissfully quick 65-minute run time.
(Edward Karam) 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... 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.
Time Out New York A-
(Adam Feldman) In any other medium but the stage, this piece—which mostly consists of wearily desperate conversation between two men in adjacent prison cells—would hardly be possible at all. It's almost all talk, but with enough Wright angles to keep you listening. The main characters are stock, but well flavored by director Lisa Denman's strong cast of actors unknown in New York.
(Jenny Sandman) Kafka's The Castle, for instance, worked largely because there were no particularities—the lack of specificity, both made the tale more maddening and more universal because any regime/government/bureaucracy could be seen to fit. The same holds true for other existential works, like Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The Unseen has that same maddening lack of specificity. We don't know any more about the prisoners' crimes or fates than they know. But director Lisa Denman has chosen to highlight the few details that exist in the prison—the seemingly random buzzers, the tin plates and spoons, the lighting, the pattern of stonework, the bloody work that precedes Smash's inarticulate rage. The actors, too, channel their search for detail into Wright's precise language; trapped as the characters are, the actors aren't able to explore any range of motion, other than Wallace's fiddling with random scrounged objects and Valdez's aimless wandering. This makes the play less a commentary on political prisoners and the corruption of power than a simple story of two men who have largely given up. It's a fine story, to be sure, but this production lacks the broader context the script hints at.
The New York Times C-
(Anita Gates) Both Mr. Pounders and Mr. Denman give strong performances, but the gruesome show-stopping speech is delivered by Thomas Ward as a mysterious character named Smash. In it he describes feeling so sorry for a prisoner who was in pain that he decided to put him out of his misery, quite literally. Even fans of Quentin Tarantino’s exuberantly violent films may feel a bit squeamish. The denouement, however, is thin. The tension falls apart at the end. Maybe the anticlimax is the point, but it leaves “The Unseen,” directed by Lisa Denman (who is married to Mr. Denman), feeling like a fragment of a short story that should only be read in full. And a little bit like a limp handshake.
That Sounds Cool C-
(Aaron Riccio) These are some fine moral issues, but they are played too much for laughs. This clashes with the aesthetics, for Sarah Brown's set is cold and unyielding, Travis Watson's lighting is direct, and Dustin Chaffin's sound design is a simple buzzer that never ceases to be jarring. The lines have the glibness of Dirty Sexy Money and the meandering banter of Lost (both of which Wright has written for), but none of the depth. As a result, when Smash takes center stage and tells his prisoners that he's been shit on--literally--for being too "human," it's hard to feel where Ward's coming from. For all the gory descriptions, the fact that it's all unseen makes The Unseen play out like a G-rated Saw: moralizing without consequences. All this makes Lisa Denman's direction somewhat heroic, as if she's tried to salvage a comedy from an abbreviated political play. Unfortunately, if there's a punchline, that too goes unseen, and without one, it's just artifice. Now we know why Beckett always threw in a banana or two: he wanted his characters to at least have the potential of slipping on the peel.
Lighting & Sound America D+
(David Barbour) Wright is apparently conceived in the tradition of Harold Pinter's Mountain Language or Caryl Churchill's Far Away, works in which totalitarian brutality is presented bluntly and without any social or political context. The trouble with such an approach is that, once you remove the specifics, what's left seems artificial and more than a little arbitrary... Pounders and Denman do everything they can to make their characters interesting, as does Thomas Ward as Smash, but The Unseen sentences us all to an hour's confinement in a theatre filled with fancy metaphors and structureless action. (Smash has a monologue in which he recalls killing a prisoner, but is notably lacking in impact.) Lisa Denman's staging can't resolves these issues, but she does keep the pace up, which is much appreciated. Sarah Brown's multi-level collage of prison cells is visually interesting, although the walls seem too obviously painted. Travis Watson's lighting and Carol Booker's costumes are both perfectly okay. Dustin Chaffin's sound design mixes those aggravating buzzers with between-scenes interludes of morose piano music.
The Village Voice F-
(Alexis Soloski) The subject matter is overfamiliar, and the writing is overwrought. Wallace worries that news of the outside world might "fill the heart with unsatisfiable hunger for the peach that can never be reached." Smash delivers a gruesome monologue on the subject of eye, tongue, and vocal cord extraction. (Apparently, eyes are quite squishy.) Wright exploits gruesomely vivid imagery and figurative language, though rarely to much effect. Sometimes he turns to allegory, as when Wallace reflects on his own experience as a means to understand the universal human condition: "All that's plain as day," he says, "is that we're brought here against our will, and we're continually tortured and starved." That's a dreary view of the life—and Wright has written a dreary play to announce it.
Nytheatre.com A+ 14; offoffonline A 13; TONY A- 12; CurtainUp B+ 11; The New York Times C- 6; That Sounds Cool C- 6; Lighting & Sound America D+ 5; The Village Voice F- 0; TOTAL: 67/8 = 8.375 (C+)