Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Review: The Unseen

Steven Pounders and Stan Denman. Photo by Matthew Minard

Be on the Lookout for What Really is Hidden Here

By Lauren Yarger
Torture takes on a new meaning, not only for the two men enduring it in Craig Wright’s The Unseen playing Off-Broadway at The Cherry Lane Theater in New York, but for the audience members who have to endure the play.

The playwright, who has popular TV shows like “Lost”, “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Brothers and Sisters,” among his credits, tries to make us think we’re watching a slick psychological study about the nature of men and the concept of reality, but what’s really hidden in this American Actor’s Company production directed by Lisa Denman, is some anti-God, anti- religion thought masked as enlightenment.

Prisoners Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman) have been held by unknown captors for unknown reasons for seven years. Though unable to see each other, they can hear each other from their stark cells (nicely staged by set designer Sarah Brown and lighting designer Travis Watson) and they tell each other tales of the horrible torture they have endured while keeping each other’s minds stimulated by playing word games.

During their conversation, Wallace monitors a series of undefined, increasingly annoying and seemingly un-ending buzzes (sound design by Dustin Chaffin) by moving some items around on the floor (his food tin and a spoon are identifiable, the others are not). Suddenly he concludes that the buzzing is the key to figuring out a plan for the layout of the prison and a means of escape. His excitement is interrupted, however, by the arrival of Smash (Thomas Ward), their torturer. It seems he’s having a bad day. It’s really hard torturing people, you know, so he has come to talk about his frustrations with Wallace and Valdez who lend sympathetic ears. (Yes, you just read that sentence correctly. It gets worse). He’s also very upset about a birthday party he missed.

“We’re here for you,” Wallace tells Smash.
“We love you just the way you are,” Valdez adds.

Jump ahead three years. Valdez has a theory. He’s convinced a woman prisoner occupies the cell between the men and for more than a year, has been tapping out news of a 10,000-year struggle taking place in a world full of tunnels outside of their prison cells. It’s a good-vs.-evil story. The totalitarian regime in charge wants people to stay prisoners, but the resistance believes freedom is possible.

Wallace’s skepticism angers Valdez who demands he extend an ear to his theory the same way he listened to Wallace’s thoughts about escaping from a prison designed like a giant beehive of individual cells. Meanwhile, Smash, shares some thoughts he has for inventing little machines that would cut out his victims eyes and tongues so he doesn’t have to suffer by seeing their fear or hearing their screams while he tortures them.

While humor sometimes can be used successfully as counter to a horrible reality (take the television series MASH, for example) the attempts here fall flat, partly because they’re not funny and partly because it’s hard to take any of it seriously. The two men, though dressed in tattered, dirty clothes (costume design by Carl Booker), appear fit physically and in good spirits for two guys who have endured 10 years of the kind of torture we hear about in graphic detail.

The problem is that the play isn’t as much an attempt to study the characters, as it is propaganda for the theory that suggests that there is no reality or truth, that all beliefs, particularly those of a religious nature, are the result of stories someone made up. The intrinsic failure of such theories however, is that they negate themselves when they claim to be the truth. The result is a wasted 75 minutes watching the play fail to make its case.

The Unseen plays through March 28 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., NY. For more information, go to http://www.unseentheplay.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Torture is described in very graphic detail, though not depicted. Blood makeup.
• Language.


5 comments:

justaguy said...

This reviewer shows an amazing lack of insight. Fault the production (the director, actors, designers) for whatever you may. Fault the play literarily. But don't dismiss the play based upon your own misinterpretation. THE UNSEEN is a deeply spiritual play with resonant Christian themes intended for adult audiences who can grapple with such complex issues. The play deals with the nature of sacrifice and salvation. Can one work out their own salvation "scientifically, mathmatically, reasonably" (Wallace)? Can one work out salvation solely based on "emotional faith" devoid of human contact and reason (Valdez)? Can someone as evil as the guard (Smash) be redeemed? Craig Wright's play, as flawed as it may be, asks us to test the limits of each of our suppositions here. Incidentally, Mr. Wright, who is a seminary graduate, wrote the play when he was commissioned to write a play about Jesus Christ. The brutal murder of the unseen prisoner does indeed lead to the liberation (salvation) of the two men. They achieve salvation through the sacrifice of another human being, though not at all in the way they expected. Much like in the real Christ story. This is a glaringly apparent metaphor that the reviewer in her facile interpretation missed. "Christian drama" rarely challenges people of faith to think as deeply as Wright's work. It is a shame that this reviewer has so grossly misinterpreted the work. It does a grave disservice to the play and to the unfortunate readers it may mislead.

DAN BUCK said...

I think you may have misread this one. This is a play by a guy who consistently leaves room for faith and God in his work and produced by a theatre company of Christians from a Baptist university. If you go into a play looking for something, you'll probably find it. And that's what it sounds like you did.

I have not seen the NY production, and it could be bad. But if you're criticizing the piece for being anti-god or anti-faith, you have missed the boat, I'm afraid.

Laurie said...

The playwright's name is Craig Wright, not Christopher Wright. This play is an allegory about faith, the role it plays in everyday life and the ways that humans attempt to interpret and understand what happens to them. The writer's perception that it is an "attack" on Christianity is childish and shallow. Thoughtful adults, "Christian" or otherwise, should be able to experience a piece of art that explores the concept of faith in terms that do not slavishly adhere to a narrow conception of a paternalistic Judeo-Christian God. It's a shame, really, because art can and should be used to stimulate conversation about topics, like religion, that can build bridges between people of different faiths. This writer seems unwilling to "hear" points of view that differ from her own. Art can't hurt you, ignorance can.

Retta Blaney said...

I haven’t seen this play, but I do know this critic’s work -- we are fellow members of Drama Desk. I don’t know of anyone else in the organization who takes her reviewing as seriously as Lauren Yarger does. I’ve been with her at shows and talked with her about upcoming productions and know that she always approaches with an open mind. Last year she was one of a small number of critics invited to participate in the coveted critics program at the O’Neill Center. Her work was so respected there and stood out so significantly that she was hired as a regional critic for American Theatre Magazine online. I don’t always agree with her assessment of a show -- if anything she’s too nice -- but I admire her work tremendously.

justaguy said...

Thank you Blaney. I want to make sure that my comments don't come across as an attack on the critic, but as a cautionary comment. Even the best of us sometimes get it wrong. I find it very troubling when "Christian critics" (whatever that is) impune the character of the artists who produce a work. Especially, when that assessment is based on shallow literary criticism. And I honestly feel that she crossed a line here. I am a Christian, and it appears that these artists are as well--Buck comments that they come from a Baptist university. It is one thing to say that their production was ineffective. It is another thing to warn potential audience members that they are spreading "anti-God" "anti-religion" propaganda that espouses that there is no truth. This crosses the line from criticism to character assassination. It also shows, in this instance anyway, weak-minded literary criticism that is not worthy of the project at hand. Criticism should be more rigorous than that. I am amazed, for instance, that she did not draw out the Christ-centered imagery in the play. When Smash is "sacrificing" the unseen prisoner he says, "It was like his eyes opened up. Like they bloomed. It was like they were suddenly ten miles deep and he was looking up at me from this bottomless ocean of fear. Sorrow. Pain. Like he was scared and sad for everyone, ever." This is obvious Christ-centered imagery referring to His carrying the sins of the world to the cross. Smash's descriptions of the torture are no different than a detailed relation of the events of the cross. It is brutal--remember THE PASSION? Further, just because both Wallace and Valdez are wrong in their final assumptions, it doesn't mean that they were wholey wrong. Some of the details they got right--there were colored lights, red velvet and baloons; there was a "liberator" that led to their "salvation." They just were not correct in every detail. This reminds me much of how humans today try to codify God into a standard set of rules and regulations. It can't be done. Scripture tells us that man cannot even begin to understand the depth or the mind of God. Like the Jews in Christ's day, Valdez believes that his mysterious unseen woman will be a "destroyer" , an earthly warrior who will conquer their enemies on their behalf. But just as Christ arrived in the most unlikely of places--a lowly manger--so does Valdez's liberation come from the most unexpected place--the sacrifice of an unknown prisoner which pricks the conscience of Smash and leads to his crisis of conscience, and ultimately to their liberation. I believe Craig Wright has written a multilayered spiritual allegory that is absolutely compatible with believers and followers of Christ who are willing to search the mysteries of God. It is only the literal-minded who will find the play troubling. Honestly, I just expected more from this critic. "Christian drama" and "Christian criticism" has remained facile like this review for too long. We deserve better.

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

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All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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