Not too long ago and for reasons not entirely altruistic, Broadway and off-Broadway veteran Sherie René Scott (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Everyday Rapture) taught a 12-week prison course named--not by her--"Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative."
For someone who likes putting her life on stage (for instance, the above-mentioned Everyday Rapture, co-written with Dick Scanlan), the assignment gives the impression of being ideal for yet again theatricalizing her own personal narrative. While she doesn't appear to have had that in mind when she began working with this inmate group, she nevertheless has done so touchingly and enlighteningly with Whorl Inside a Loop, again co-authoring with Scanlan, in a Second Stage production.
Directed by Michael Mayer and Scanlan in a manner alternating between gritty and grinning, Scott and Scanlan have adapted her story and included her interplay with prisoners -- all of these found guilty of murder, one of them innocent of the crime. The playwrights also devote time to Scott's dealings with members of the prison staff and exchanges with family, friends (notably a doubting husband called Noah) and a potential producer.
While there are times when it feels as if Scott and Scanlan may have tweaked what really happened -- not necessarily to protect, say, the guilty -- most of the 100 intermissionless minutes have the clarion ring of verisimilitude. In particular, a spectator might expect that among the convicted killers with whom Scott comes into contact over the 12 visits, at least one would pose some degree of menace. When that never happens, it initially seems as if Scott has to be glossing over the truth of her experience.
Okay, when one of the men -- all of them African-American -- reenacts his murder, there is a tense moment, but it's quickly defused. Still, in the long run the lack of anything disturbing comes across as hewing closer to the truth than inserting volatility simply because it's expected might be. Incidentally, as benign as the men are within the walls -- which for this purpose have been stripped by designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis to Second Stage architect Rem Koolhaas's bared look -- there is one, remaining identified, who, the men agree, must never be allowed out.
That over time Scott becomes friendlier and more at ease with the six men in the class as they deliver the narratives they've prepared appears to be quite natural. She's both surprised and gratified that the men are so forthcoming and articulate when describing either incidents that put them where they are or when detailing other chapters in their lives.
There is one narrative that at its finish earned applause during the press preview I attended. Jeffrey (Chris Meyers), who didn't commit the crime for which he took the fall, talks about himself with such pathos that only the hardest heart would stay unmoved. His -- confession is the wrong word -- his explanation is so irrefutably convincing that Scott asks the obvious question: If everyone knows he shouldn't be behind bars, why is he? She gets her answer, and it's not a consoling one.
The other prisoners, who boast names like Sunnyside, Flex, Bey, Source and Rick are played with great vigor by, respectively, Derrick Baskin, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr., Ryan Quinn and Nicholas Christopher. They all double as prison staffers -- one is the man assigned to check Scott for any metal she might be carrying. She is: the wire in her bra, and it causes him consternation.
In addition to Noah, among those impersonated are Scott's producer Tammy and her gay hairdresser. One of his clients is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who one day has an appointment immediately following Scott's -- an appointment leading to developments potentially meaningful for the inmates. (There's no speculation here whether the current Presidential candidate's chances will rise or fall on her agreeing to attend a performance the inmates give in the prison gym, but she does want to drop by with the intent of considering prison reform.)
In case anyone deciding whether to see Whirl Inside a Loop (the title refers to fingerprints, of course) is wondering about Scott's exploiting the prisoners' histories, the issue is raised and has apparently been resolved satisfactorily. The program credits "additional material" to, alphabetically, Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat and Jeffrey Rivera. Farther back in the program, the title of each man's narrative is listed.
During Scott's three-month course, one of the men has applied a fourth time for parole. As the Whorl Inside a Loop ending approaches, he receives his letter. What it discloses won't be, er, disclosed here, but it's a beauty of a blackout.
It's March 31, 1999 in Ken Urban's Sense of an Ending, and Charles (Joshua David Robinson), a New York Times reporter in trouble for plagiarism, is hoping to clear his name by getting to the bottom of a breaking Rwandan story. Sister Justina (Heather Alicia Simms) and Sister Alice (Dana Marie Ingraham) have been charged with contributing to a Tutsi massacre in a local cathedral and are about to be transported to Berlin for trial.
Charles is being looked after by soldier Paul (Hubert Pont-Du Jour), whose motives regarding the nuns' innocence or guilt is unclear. Nevertheless, Charles persists at getting Sister Justina and Sister Alice to tell their histories and by the interviews, even when the nuns are cagey around each other, reiterate their innocence. That's the report Charles knows his NYT editor, Kendra, wants and expects. He's also hoping to interview Dusabi (Danyon Davis), a Tutsi who, with his now deceased wife Elizabeth, survived the slaying and is the only witness to the murder and burning of the several hundred men, women and children who'd sought shelter in the church.
Sense of an Ending, compactly directed by Adam Fitzgerald and compellingly acted, at 59E59, is a look back at fading headlines concerning the Hutus revenge on the Tutsis once the long repressed Hutus were in the position to dominate their former suppressers. It's a potent view of man's and woman's inhumanity to man and woman.
In the small space where Sense of an Ending is unfolding the dominant piece set designer David L. Arsenault provides is the cathedral's large double door, each door featuring a relatively small cut-out of a cross. Behind the doors is supposedly what remains of the carnage. The door opens only at the denouement. What's revealed is stunning, but, needless to say, will not be described here.
Sarah (Miriam Silverman) and Sam (Matt Dellapina) -- newly in love and smooching when not mooting the benefits of suffering as a prescription for self-understanding -- are interrupted by an insistent knock on the door to the comfortable Manhattan living room Reid Thompson has designed for her to call home.
Not expecting more company, Sarah reluctantly goes to see who's there. In bursts Nate (Nick Westrate), Sarah's best friend from when they grew up in the same building. His arrival is a Big Uh-oh, and occurs only after the three characters have had a few fourth-wall-breaking words with the audience. Their addressing the patrons continues throughout A Delicate Ship, Anna Ziegler's long-at-80-minutes play, directed by Margot Bordelon for The Playwrights Realm, at Playwright's Horizons.
The difficulty with the piece is that -- as played and directed but maybe not as written -- Nate's high-energy, even menacing, presence signals just about everything that will dismayingly affect the incipient Sarah-Sam romance. No surprise mitigates the predictable plotting as Nate begins assailing Sam and increasingly declares himself the man who's loved Sarah from second grade, just as, he maintains, she loves him.
Anyone aware of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or maybe even 1965's on-screen Darling knows that introducing a party game is trouble, and that's just what Nate does here. It also doesn't help that Ziegler has indulged herself in much questionable poetic writing. "Our lives are love songs to our parents," Sarah proclaims at one point, and if the line strikes you as delectable, then maybe A Delicate Ship is for you.
Actors Silverman and Dellapina, who plays guitar and sings nicely along the way, perform well together, and Westrate has some effective stretches. If on arrival he were to play Nate as less immediately psychotic, Ziegler's script might have a more insinuating dramatic arc.
So there you have it: another play where an intruder hangs around longer than anyone would be allowed to linger in real life.