nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
March 11, 2009
The Unseen, for any self-respecting theater snob, demands to be anything but.
A riveting example of deceptive simplicity, The Unseen, fueled by the dazzling wordplay of playwright Craig Wright, turns solitary confinement into a potboiler thriller that not only sucks you in, but puts a choke hold on you until it has your undivided attention. With masterful direction by Lisa Denman and terrific, spellbinding performances from a first-rate cast, the Cherry Lane Theater might just have on its hands a sellout for as long as it wants one. The Unseen is a darkly comic, deeply thought-provoking, emotionally disturbing, and soul-searching masterpiece that will resonate with you for far longer than the blissfully quick 65-minute run time.
The Unseen opens in an unnamed totalitarian regime where two prisoners, Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman), are each trapped in solitary, in what looks like a cross-section of a beehive. They speak to each other over the walls and through barred windows and it appears that they have never actually seen one another. They barrel through massive swaths of Beckettian banter and contemplate their existences—or complete lack thereof. They are required by their circumstances to invent their own worlds to survive—Valdez believes that there is a female prisoner in an adjoining cell, Wallace has created his own Mayan calendar out of kitchenware to best predict the precise moment they can both escape. Both are interrupted from their metaphors and flights of fancy at regular intervals by ear-splitting jail sirens and the occasional waterboarding from their reluctant tormentor/guard, Smash (Thomas Ward).
The Unseen is brilliantly structured by Wright as an unfair piece from the beginning—we never learn Wallace or Valdez's crimes, we never know what country we're in or who the dictator is—and that, in turn, allows it to achieve timelessness and a universal resonance. Part of the beauty of the script is that it behaves much like a musical composition where the fermatas in the piece provide us with space to probe our deepest feelings. At the moments when our protagonists' hopes are shattered, our own hearts sink as we inevitably think of our own prisons and our own failures as human beings that led us there. Smash (somewhat ironically) becomes the emotional pivot of The Unseen and his dual role as both abuser and therapist is too psychologically intense to be reduced to a sentence. (In other words, you really have to see it.)
I can report, unequivocally, that the work of all three actors is phenomenal. Wright's language is downright poetic and he has given award-worthy monologues to the character of Wallace, which Pounders devours and delivers with stunning panache. Denman, as Valdez, has the dramatic timing of a trained sniper. And Ward manages to evoke pathos for a character that performs regular acts of bloody violence.
Deeper still are the spiritual questions that Wright raises during the play's duration about the nature of our roles on life's grand stage: Who are we? Why are we here? Does any of this matter? Yet he pushes far beyond high-school level existential bullshit into a world where Wallace's dreams may or may not have become a reality lived by Smash, or Valdez's dreams of a fellow prisoner knocking on the wall may or may not be a secret language between them. Mystical without being religious or pushy, The Unseen addresses age-old questions that cannot be answered by Wright or any other mortal—but he achieves the playwright's dream of making his audience think about the questions on their way out the door.
Wright has written several plays, including Recent Tragic Events and Orange Flower Water, but lately has been working on television projects such as Lost and Dirty Sexy Money; he triumphs with The Unseen, and we should all thank him that he has decided to come back to give us a phenomenal gift.
For your sake, make sure that The Unseen isn't unseen much longer.