Nutshell Productions is currently producing a double bill of one-acts at the American Theatre for Actors on West 54th Street, just a block west of Studio 54. The two pieces are William Saroyan's Hello Out There and Jean Genet's Deathwatch. As both plays have a prison as their setting, this is basis for the conceit for the pairing.
The proceedings start well with Saroyan's Hello Out There, essentially a two-hander about a young drifter and gambler (Richard Hymes-Esposito) accused - he asserts falsely - of raping a married woman and the connection he makes with a lonely young girl (Kerry Fitzgibbons) who works at the town jail where he has been tossed. The play is essentially about the human need to connect, particularly among those on the margins of society who are blown about by fortune, neglect and the pressure of the American Dream. Both Hymes-Esposito and Fitzgibbons give understated and clear performances and have a lovely, low-key chemistry. The play's language has a dated feel to it, but the actors inhabit it easily and make it sing for them. Director Robert Haufrecht uses the limited space effectively and the lighting/sound design (Eric Nightengale) and simple set (Craig Napoliello) all work together to create a credible world for the play. The narrative's tragic arc is fairly predictable, but the two leads generate enough heat that you are still invested in the results.
The second and longer piece, Genet's dark and restive Deathwatch, does not fare as well. Three prisoners share a cell in a French prison. The play is meant to be a microcosm of society and explore the games of power that individuals play as they grapple to retain whatever edge they have over their companions. Similar to Hello Out There, the work also explores the struggle of outcasts against their oppressors. Genet, especially in the translation featured, uses highly-stylized language. Actors and director must have a firm grasp of the underlying story they are telling to avoid italicizing too much of the colorful hyperbole that saturates the dialogue, otherwise the play becomes a shouting match and a scenery chewing contest.
Unfortunately this is the case here. The three prisoners, Green Eyes (Raul Sigmund Julia) LeFranc (Greg Engbrecht) and Maurice (John Paul Harkins), spend the play alternately shouting, snarling, weeping or awkwardly addressing the audience. Of the three, Engbrecht fares the best locating some humor, clarity and a few poignant moments in the text. Otherwise the three mostly flail about the stage. Hymes-Esposito, the young man from Hello Out There, takes over directing duties here and does not seem to know how to orchestrate the many ideas he is trying to get across. There are odd and distracting light and sound cues strewn throughout the piece. One at times gets the sense that he is going for a camp sensibility, but then the histrionics on stage negate any sense of this. The fight choreography by Nathan DeCoux serves more to distract and give the actors an aerobic workout than advance the story in any useful way.
It is certainly admirable that Nutshell Productions is taking on these two challenging and rarely-produced plays, and I hope they continue to work on honing their artistic vision in order to give these obscure works their proper due. Spend a Night in Jail will be running through May 23rd. Tickets can be purchased at www.SmartTix.com or by calling (212) 868-4444.