This is a play that wants to disturb, disrupt. Brutal, cramped, confined to the rages and revelations of three prisoners, this is a prison-cell world containing an unrelenting effusion of despair and abuse, where hierarchies shift the minute one comprehends them. A play written to keep an audience in uncertain waters demands an uncommon precision on the part of the actors, and this is, no doubt, a dynamic cast up to the task. The power structure of these three criminals changes by the minute—new jealousies and antagonisms surface endlessly, then repeat, demanding that the actors constantly readjust attitudes. This is an opportunity for an explosive, spontaneous kind of theatre.
Three characters are trapped in a world they invent and reinvent. The center of gravity is Green Eyes (David Blanchard), the brutal killer awaiting death, who lords fatherly over his petty criminal companions. There is Maurice, given a sly, seductive, predatory portrayal by Josh T. Ryan, and LeFranc, who awaits his imminent freedom, played by Lenny Sans as cocky, cunning, and slightly ambiguous. While these three performances intrigue in their own right, in the exciting intimacy of this tight space one wants to see something happen onstage that is as unsettling as the play itself. There are moments, to be sure, where these actors meet eye to eye. Yet in these close quarters, we can see when they connect onstage, when something spontaneous occurs and surprises us—those moments where live theatre happens before our eyes. We can also see places in which it doesn't.
Director John Falchi smartly orchestrates the quicksand of these relationships and stages fight scenes that startle. Yet while this is a very solid production of a difficult play, the work could nevertheless be heartily improved by an ample dose of theatrical chemistry, so that the actors truly listen to each other's words as if they've never heard them before. Clashes, caresses, abusive lines—there are many points for these unexpected sparks to fly. As Green Eyes, Blanchard delivers a standout performance as a man both corrupt and soulful. Blanchard's monologues—in which Green Eyes recounts his crime—are elevated to a kind of mystical trance in which he controls us completely as he finds something genuine in the often poetic lines. We feel that we are exploring the nature of transgression, of despair, right along with him.
Ben Goodman gives a comedic turn as the amiable prison guard who offers the only peripheral view of this warped continuum. Despite occasional moments that feel a touch over-rehearsed, the production still stands as an ambitious tackling of a rarely performed Jean Genet classic, brought to life by a competent cast in a savagely snug setting.
"Deathwatch," presented by and at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8:30 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Feb. 9-Mar. 4. $10. (818) 202-4120.