nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
July 28, 2009
Prison Theatre, a Midtown International Theatre Festival offering written by Gabor Harsanyi, begins with an intriguing concept, and descends fairly quickly into a playwright's nightmare: looping. Round and round it goes covering the same ground with one anecdote, then another and then still another, without gaining much traction in the 80 minutes allotted. This is a shame since the plot is heavy with potential and the two actors periodically show signs of genuine talent.
The play begins when a young actor is thrown into a prison cell with an old timer who has spent the last ten years in solitary confinement. The actor unleashes his fantasy world before an imaginary audience, and invites the old timer to participate. Before long, the old timer demands not only the leading roles, but the role of director as well. The actor, who values discipline and talent, refuses. The situation gets nasty, and the play-acting becomes less a game and more about who dominates whom.
Harsanyi buries us in irrelevant detail. One prisoner is Israeli and the other Hungarian. This goes nowhere other than to give the Hungarian license to yell two angry expletives at the Israeli. Various scenarios are acted out—about Hitler, a frustrating recitation of a poem in an acting class, an abbreviated scene from Othello, an evening in a strip joint, and many more—none of which advances the plot. Domination transfers back and forth from one prisoner to the other, although the dramatic events that trigger the transfers are not clear. It's a set-up without the payoff. The journey from fantasy to grim reality trades in threats, humiliation, and the prospect of torture. The problem is not the seriousness of these subjects, but that the playwright has not sculpted the storyline so that they naturally fall into place. Less important, but perhaps worth noting, is the lack of a program identifying the actors.