nytheatre.com review by Ken Urban
The dynamic between an audience and a production is a tricky one.
When it works, there’s nothing like it. But sometimes, whether
due to the show’s subject matter, the production’s approach, or
bad audience karma, it just doesn’t work. Such is the case with
You Got Soul’s production of Thundermug.
August 15, 2002
Based on a short story by Nelson Algren and adapted for the stage by Jeff Loshinsky, Thundermug follows Algren stand-in Cass McKay (Chris McBurney) as he is thrown in jail for stealing a typewriter in Depression-era Texas. To make matters worse, McKay was found hiding out with an escaped Black prisoner while riding the rails with his stolen goods. McKay’s fellow prisoners try to punish him for being a "nigger lover," but to avoid the lash, McKay capitulates to their racism to protect his own ass. Locked-up for ninety days, McKay bides his time documenting the power struggles among the prisoners as Judge "Nubby" O’Neil (Osborn Focht), the self-proclaimed leader, tries to maintain his place on top against Mr. Bastard (Joseph Fleming).
The story itself is not all that compelling. The play features the requisite scenes of prison rape and bloody fights that we all expect of this genre. Adapter Loshinsky is a first-time stage writer and it shows. The play’s mix of narration and realism never gels. You get the sense that Thundermug’s story is better read than seen. Focht and Fleming give the strongest performances. They are highly believable as prisoners Nubby and Bastard. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, are less convincing. Director John Peterson does the show no favors by staging the rape and fight scenes with an almost polite demeanor. There is something prurient in watching men devolve into animals, and that is one of things that keep people tuning into TV shows like "Oz" and "Law and Order." Since the play’s story is familiar, this show needs to be full of atmosphere and intensity. Thundermug lacks both. I was never really transported back in time to Algren’s dusty jail cell and I never found my own desire for watching despicable acts satisfied. The elements for something interesting are there, but when I saw the show, I’m sad to say: It just didn’t work.