A Powerful New Prison Drama

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Let me get this straight. I'm supposed to put patriotism over partisan rancor now because otherwise the major party machines might actually start to look bad in a way people remember, endangering next year's vote and voter manipulation? And I'm supposed to accept old boy George Dubya, the most embarrassing mediocrity to attract a national following since Homer Simpson and Ronald Reagan, as my legitimately elected president simply because the majority conservatives on the Supreme Court (including the most cynical appointment of the 20th century?Clarence Thomas?nominated by Dubya's daddy) squandered what was left of their judicial reputations by preventing the votes in Florida from being fairly counted? Well, sorry, I just can't do it. The whole pathetic shell game gives a new twist to H.L. Mencken's remark that "Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice."

I heard the news that the partisan-for-life justices had spoken while on the way home from Stephen Adly Guirgis' powerful new prison drama Jesus Hopped the "A" Train, whose tough questions about justice swam around in my head as I felt my rage rising. One of the characters in Guirgis' play is a public defender who is green enough to pay more attention to what's right than to what's literally "just," and her client pays the price with decades of undeserved incarceration. Another character is a guard who seems to consider any inmate's incarceration proof that he has "renounced" his humanity, justifying the guard's cruelty as "the only justice that the families of your victims are ever gonna get." The spirit of the recent election endgame?and, I fear, of the whole coming presidency as well (the bogus olive branches on both sides be damned)?is the spirit of that guard: an abdication of basic principles rationalized as the harsh justice inherent in a cynical, unavoidable game. I didn't vote for Al Gore and don't believe in his moral purity any more than in Bush's, but the fact that we will now never know the true outcome of the 2000 election forces me and at least 50,158,094 others to spend the next four years locked in a cage of mistrust and cynicism along with the civilian equivalent of 49,820,518 gloating, self-righteous guards.

I mustn't insult Guirgis, though, by comparing his thinking too closely with that of the GOP shills on the Supreme Court. This is a young, uneven work, but it is memorably disturbing precisely because it doesn't flatter or demonize anyone and leaves all sides looking complexly human. It's also given a crackling production in this LAByrinth Theater Company production directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The action takes place mostly in a yard on Rikers Island, where inmates confined to 23-hour lockdown are brought for an hour of sun and exercise each day?a cheerless block of adjacent metal cages designed with fitting chilliness by Narelle Sissons, with barbed wire on top, a judge-like guard's chair upstage and actual fencing on only the cages' outer sides. Here Lucius Jenkins (Ron Cephas Jones), a serial murderer awaiting extradition to Florida (which wants to execute him), becomes the sole conversation partner (apart from his lawyer) of Angel Cruz (John Ortiz), a kid facing murder charges for shooting a cult leader.

The two inmates are friendly at first?as much as the guard Valdez (David Zayas) will allow them to be, that is?because Lucius, who has found Jesus in prison and become a celebrity, comforts the terrified Angel with an irresistible mix of tender compassion and gassy bromides about spiritual health. As soon as Angel feels stronger, though, he considers himself better than Lucius, since Angel only intended to wound the cult leader (in payback for kidnapping one of his close friends), whereas Lucius sadistically killed eight people. Their exchanges about accepting responsibility for these crimes grow more and more heated, with each one pretending to deny the other any quarter while the audience sees that emotional damage is indeed being done on both sides. Disillusioned Lucius ends up high on heroin, not Jesus, at his execution, and Angel ends up getting his lawyer disbarred and himself convicted of first-degree murder because of his bright new ideas about squaring himself with God.

One of Guirgis' cleverest strokes was to juxtapose this intense battle of consciences?fought with stunning ferocity by Jones and Ortiz from behind their invisible cage-walls?with interior monologues by Angel's lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Elizabeth Canavan) and two guards, Valdez and D'Amico (Salvatore Inzerillo), who is fired for his kindness to Lucius. These monologues connect the argument about personal responsibility to the world of unconfined people, because they're about wise and foolish risks taken while trying to "do the right thing" in ways institutions such as law courts can't recognize. Some of these speeches stretch the limits of what the characters would plausibly say, as do many of Angel's tirades. In general, though, the play is fascinatingly unpredictable, marvelously stormy and blessedly devoid of facile moralizing, leaving one free to hang almost any personally political ornaments on it one chooses.

Which brings me back to the election and my nausea at the way it ended without anyone even considering "doing the right thing" or rising to the magnanimous gesture in Angel's, Mary Jane's or D'Amico's sense. It seems that our cynicism and selfishness have led us to where we actually have no high public officials capable of thinking in terms of a greater good when it isn't completely safe for them. Why, for instance, couldn't Bill Clinton see in early 1999 that a speech to the effect that, "Look, I did this, it was wrong, and I'm sorry," would've nipped Monicagate in the bud? Why couldn't any of the impeachment hotheads admit that lying about an affair, even under oath, isn't sufficient reason to unseat a president? And why couldn't any of the five rash justices recognize that muscling their boy through, Mafia-style, did more lasting damage to the judiciary and the executive than allowing the Florida recounts to finish ever could have? Go ahead and swallow the tranquilizing syrup about national reconciliation from the media talking heads if you want. I'll stick with the more forthright hocus-pocus of theater made by people humble and courageous enough to examine our cycle of corrosive cynicism without blowing smoke in my face.

East 13th St. Theater, 136 E. 13th St. (betw. 3rd & 4th Aves.), 239-6200, through Dec. 31.

Tiny Alice
By Edward Albee

There's an unwritten rule in American culture that stars are created to be shot down. As much as American reviewers enjoy waxing celestial over impressive first works, they're even more zealous about expressing "I-told-you-so" disappointment over inferior second or third ones. This was the role Tiny Alice played in Edward Albee's career in the winter of 1964-'65. The Zoo Story and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been critical and popular triumphs; his adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was respected, though it didn't run long. The baffling Tiny Alice thus became his calamitous watershed, perceived as an act of esthetic overreaching that justified a new tone of condescension by the very critics who had praised his surging energy, caustic wit and glassy language. Decades of contempt and neglect followed, until Albee was suddenly reborn as a respected senior statesman in 1994 with the Pulitzer-winning Three Tall Women.

It would be sweet, in light of this, to be able to declare Mark Lamos' fine production of Tiny Alice at Second Stage (it originated at Hartford Stage in 1998) a thorough vindication for the author. It isn't, its many pleasures notwithstanding. When I first saw this play 20 years ago as a college kid ready to turn the world upside down, I thought all the grownups who found it confusing were fuddy-duddies unwilling to bother looking closely at the symbolism?which has to do with the consequences of representing God in our own image and with life experienced as perpetual disorientation within Chinese boxes. The symbolism now strikes me as slightly hamfisted and insufficiently blended into the play's other purposes.

Tiny Alice has several witty and clear characters and tight, clever scenes, but it nevertheless comes off (today, at any rate) as a study in false starts. Now a story of sexual intrigue likening religious ecstasy to physical gratification, now a melodramatic mystery with huge sums of money in the balance, now a puppet play in which the puppet occupying the model castle center stage in effect refuses to perform, it feels unfulfilled on all these scores because the author is so busy inventing portentous encryptions to flavor everything as a metaphysical play of ideas.

Richard Thomas is a bit too doe-eyed for my taste as Brother Julian?the "lay" brother whose chastity and life a cynical Cardinal decides to sacrifice in exchange for a $20-billion donation to the church (raised from $2 billion in 1964). The stress here is on the innocent victim at the expense of the eager martyr, and the wannabe martyr's speeches of justification are our only compelling reason to care about his ecstasy. Tom Lacy, by contrast, is a paragon of awful, pontificating pomposity as the Cardinal, and Stephen Rowe is also splendidly scoffing and overweening as the lawyer named Lawyer; their catty opening scene together establishing the obscure business "understanding" is one of the show's treats. John Michael Higgins is also fine as the jauntily insouciant butler named Butler. And Laila Robins as the unthinkably rich Miss Alice?she and Rowe are the two newcomers to the production?provides the overall sensual glue that makes all Albee's strands feel meshed. Icily ravishing with a superbly controlled, deep voice and strong, sinewy limbs, she plays Alice as the fantasy executioner, a sort of compassionate spider capable of making you forget, sometimes, that you have no idea what devil's bargain she's ominously facilitating.

Second Stage, 307 W. 43rd St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.), 246-4422, through Jan. 7.

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