nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 17, 2010
Creating suspense is an incredibly difficult feat. It's a delicate counterbalance of information and atmosphere that's got to keep the audience just clued in enough to know something bad is going to happen, but just enough in the dark that they can't be exactly sure. This has always been difficult in the theatre, but it is particularly hard in 2010 when audiences, saturated with so much TV and cinema, have seen so many things and are also so inured to violence or extremity, that it's harder and harder to throw them for a loop. Scott Decker's Prey makes an admirable attempt at cultivating an atmosphere of suspense—it starts promisingly but it soon devolves into something that just feels like we've seen it before.
As we file into the theatre, there is already a man (Jack, played by Decker) sitting onstage, slumped over and visibly bound to his chair. The rest of the set is bare: besides Jack, there is basically only a small desk, a stool, and, of course, some plastic sheeting. Already, it doesn't look good for our new friend. The play begins when an innocuous-looking bespectacled gentleman, Paul (beautifully played by Sean Patrick Reilly) enters. Jack begins to spit curses and boasts at Paul, how Paul will be in serious trouble when Jack gets free, how Jack is not the sort of person to be messed with, etc. Paul remains unflapped, and goes about reading and organizing the contents of his briefcase.
This all starts well enough. We're intrigued. The dialogue is well-written and well-played. The introduction of another character, Tony (a charming Gian Carbonara), adds a comic edge that doesn't deflate the general air of unease.
So what is it, then, that prevents Prey from working? There are some practical elements that don't help—for instance, I had an incredibly difficult time hearing the performers at times, and found myself leaning forward for much of the show in an effort to just catch what was being said (some of—but not all—the blame can be laid at the feet of an overly insistent air conditioner). Also, for all his ranting, we just don't like Jack, and so we're much less interested in why he's there or whether or not he'll be okay and more interested in seeing what Paul and Tony are going to do to him (but, of course, what Paul and Tony can do to him is limited by budget and medium). But I think the main problem with Prey is twofold: it's too willing to show all of its cards and the cards themselves wind up being rather underwhelming.
I hesitate to go into further detail for fear of spoiling the show for those who wish to see it, so suffice to say that, by the end of the play, we will receive all the information we need and then some, but the manner in which we receive that information keeps us at a distance. This is especially embodied in the character of Angela, Paul's sister (Claudia Godi). She is introduced as a pre-intermission character—a tactic always used for the big guns, plot-wise—and come Act Two, she definitely talks a big game, but is really given nothing more to do than yell and slap. Her recounting of the event that resulted in Jack's abduction, too, is surprisingly rote. The way the character describes it, what happened to her just doesn't shock us as I think it's trying to. Perhaps that says more about the desensitizing of society than it does about dramaturgy, but I found myself way ahead of the material for much of the second act.
Prey has the potential to ask some very weighty questions—what is prey, predation, power, etc.—and I sense that Decker is aiming to do so, but the script just doesn't quite do it yet. Too much time is spent rehashing attitudes and itineraries, not enough establishing motifs and posing the questions that are most likely unanswerable but will lead the audience's minds towards connecting those thematic dots. As it is now, Prey comes off mostly as a kind of muted torture drama.
Included in the programs is a note regarding a film house acquiring the rights to the play and an upcoming feature in the works. This might be the best thing for Prey—through a medium that allows a more manipulatable atmosphere (and, when all else fails, at least has the ability to show more graphic violence that will keep us on our toes), Decker's script will potentially find more effective ways to highlight the subtleties that are currently too small for the stage. As it is, the play is still worth seeing for its moments of great dialogue (and for Reilly's fantastic performance), but those wanting something a little juicier might come away disappointed.