Short Eyes

Urbantheater Co.

at Aguijon Theater Company

Miguel Pinero famously wrote his prison drama, Short Eyes, while doing time at Sing Sing in the early 70s. Joseph Papp saw it in its first incarnation at the Theatre of the Riverside Church and guided it to a production at Lincoln Center. Coarse, ugly, violent, and lewd, the play offered Broadway audiences a horrifying/titillating glimpse into convict society, the lumpen subculture that had lately drawn heavy popular attention thanks to jailhouse memoirs like Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs, and–most of all–the Attica uprising of 1971.

Short Eyes won two Obies, six Tony nominations, and the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best American play of 1973-’74. Thirty years later, it’s just kind of nauseatingly quaint. What middle school kid doesn’t know that a weak or effeminate prisoner faces the prospect of gang rape unless he becomes a stronger man’s bitch? Or that child molesters are despised and considered good as dead in the prison social structure? Or that you’ve got to watch your back in the shower? Or that guards are corrupt? The secret scandal of the 70s is today’s common knowledge.

More than that, it’s been co-opted by the mainstream. If it does nothing else, watching the new Urbantheater Co. production of Short Eyes makes you realize how thoroughly the vocabulary, morality, and pecking order of the cell block have been absorbed into American life. Think of the thug mode in hip-hop. We’re no longer tourists in this territory; in an odd, frightening way, we aspire to be natives.

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising. With over two million Americans in prison or jail and another five million on parole or probation (according to Bureau of Justice Statistics information for 2003), the group “under correctional supervision” in the United States comprises a good-size minority. Naturally their folkways will become part of the national gestalt.

And naturally the national gestalt will have no trouble absorbing them, because when you come down to it those folkways aren’t the least bit foreign. The men who occupy the prison dayroom in Short Eyes operate by rules we find familiar, however weirdly they refract at times. Cons and guards alike maintain secure borders. Regulate commerce and relationships. Weasel, cower, rationalize, ritualize, and confront as necessary. And of course, gang up on the outsider.

The primary–though not the only–outsider here is Clark Davis, a white boy in blazer and chinos who’s just spent 33 days under observation at Bellevue and is now being held on charges of molesting a little girl. His arrival changes everything. Comfortable race, sex, and power roles disintegrate as white bodybuilders and Black Muslims unite in vigilante revulsion against the pedophile. You’d think that the rest would be nothing but mob psychology. But Pinero isn’t satisfied with a lynching. Not completely, anyway. Even as his characters worry Davis like zoo lions fighting over a slab of beef, they’re engaged in a neat little Marxian dance of countervailing interests. And in the end, what’s truly left when the roles fall away is individual conscience.

Unfortunately, Short Eyes is more interesting than good. The last production I saw used puppetlike headdresses–big foam penis-head hats, among others–to distract us from its frailties. Here, director Ron OJ Parson tries a strictly naturalistic approach, which means that the only thing standing between the play’s weaknesses and our suspension of disbelief is the ensemble. Which can’t hold the line. This is most disappointingly obvious in a scene where Davis (Greg Kinnear look-alike Andrew Kain Miller) opens up to fellow inmate Juan (Ivan Vega). Neither actor is bad, really, but neither can muster the force and skill necessary to make this absolutely crucial passage believable.

Still, there are some nice performances. Senuwell Smith would be vivid even without his epic–and, again, not entirely believable–masturbation scene as veteran convict Ice. And Madrid St. Angelo is sinuous to a mambo beat as a “snake charmer”–a sexual predator–called Paco.

When: Through 7/3: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Aguijon Theater Company, 2707 N. Laramie

Price: $20

Info: 773-347-1203