nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
April 27, 2008
Theatre of the Expendable made an excellent choice when they chose to produce Cherry Docs. It is a weighty, engaging drama, a perfect way to celebrate their tenth year as a company.
Performed in the intimate Workshop Theatre, this two-man drama features some of the most skillful acting I've seen off-off Broadway in quite awhile. Maximilian Osinski makes his New York theatre debut as Mike Downey, the surprisingly intelligent neo-Nazi skinhead who is on trial for a racially motivated murder. Mark Zeisler portrays Danny Dunkelman, his liberal Jewish lawyer. The scenes alternate between the private attorney/client meetings and monologues that are delivered directly to the audience.
Canadian writer-director David Gow has created something very important here. It is a beautiful piece of theatre that examines not only the motivation behind hate crimes but the people who commit them. The show also delves into the difference between an individual who makes it his life's work to annihilate a race of people and one who locks the car doors automatically when driving through the "bad part of town." He shows us that hate doesn't just exist inside one group. It is something that exists in our society as a whole and even those fighting against it, must understand it in order to help society heal.
It would have been very easy to write stereotypes into a play like this, making the skinhead kid stupid and "white trash." Instead, he is a competent young man, filled with potential, possibilities, and a rage fueled by fear and hatred of other human beings. His lawyer could have fallen into a stereotype just as easily but doesn't even come close. He is a flesh and blood man presented with a conflict of morals that inspires him to look at himself on a very provocative level. Imagine two men, standing on stage... just breathing. These are the people who tell this story.
Gow does a lovely job in his direction, making smart, artful, and deliberate choices that take the script to a variety of levels. Ryan Metzler's lighting design changes the setting effectively throughout, casting chain link shadows across the prisoner's face. I was, however, disappointed in Elizabeth Hammet's costume design. When there is a play so rooted in symbolism as Cherry Docs, it is vital that the symbols be clear. Here the symbols are Mike's tattoos. There are literally multiple monologues discussing each one's meaning, new tattoos he plans to procure, and how they reflect parts of his life. But Hammet appears to have given him marker-drawn ink tattoos that shine unrealistically in the lights, and smear as the actor begins to sweat. This element was highly distracting, so much so, that when Mike finally covered the tattoos with clothing, I could feel myself begin to engage further into the world Gow is portraying. The real brilliance of productions like this is in the smallest details and I hope that in future performances this particular detail is remedied.
Both performers are superb. Mike takes an amazing journey from a cocky kid who doesn't seem to realize the level of trouble he is in, to a squirrelly inmate, desperate for help, and brings us along with him as he goes deeper and deeper into the reality of the crime he has committed. Osinski's visceral performance draws emotions from the audience like water from a well. Most impressive is his likeability. This is not a neo-Nazi that we want to hate. Far from it. We pity him and want him to realize the magnitude of what he has done. My heart broke once as he coaxed Danny into a fight, prodding him with a joke about "the Hoax-a-caust." It broke again when he beseeched him, "There is some good in me."
Zeisler draws us into the show with the first line. His monologues are staggeringly well done. One in particular had me weeping as chills ascended my spine. He asks himself, "Do I hate these people?" and answers, "No. I'm just afraid of them." Stumbling over a handful of lines, Zeisler never lost his honesty or broke character, demonstrating his professionalism. Osinski and Zeisler are well-matched and play off one another with a specific chemistry. I would have liked more of a relationship change between the way they addressed the audience and the way they spoke to each other.
But the fact that the qualms I have with the production are with very small elements proves just how special this play truly is. Cherry Docs has been produced more than 30 times all over the world and it is clear why. It could easily enjoy a successful off-Broadway run, so see it now because this is not a play to miss.