Strap yourself in for one wild ride when you take your seat at Joe Assadourian's insanely entertaining and thought-provoking one-man show The Bullpen, now running at the Playroom Theater. In a near breathless 70 minutes, he delivers a performance so strong that missing it ought to be a crime.
Assadourian came to the theater while serving time for attempted murder at Otisville Correctional Institution. There, he reluctantly became involved in a theater group led by actor and director Richard Hoehler. Together they came up with an eight-minute sketch that evolved into this blisteringly funny and superbly performed play, which Hoehler also directs, about the absurd world of the justice system.
Sharp, astute, and relentlessly funny, Joe Assadourian plays 18 characters inside and outside "the bullpen," a holding place for men waiting to be arraigned by the court. At the play's opening, a light shines on Assadourian as the Reporter, who speaks with the dulcet cadences of a newscaster as he delivers breaking news about a man who has allegedly shot another man in the buttocks outside a nightclub. Turns out that the alleged shooter is Joe, who may not have actually committed the crime. He is quickly brought before Judge Gold, a cantankerous, squinty-eyed jurist presiding over a wildly dysfunctional courtroom full of mumbling lawyers, bumbling translators, and preposterous rulings.
To Joe's dismay, he is then tossed into the bullpen, where he meets a menagerie of misfits and malefactors. "Am I supposed to be in this cell?" he asks the C.O. "I can't understand what most of these people are saying in here." Among the bullpen's denizens are the sibilant, gay cross-dresser Kitty, the incomprehensible Dominican Pysa, the thickly accented, hand-gesturing Italian Vinny, the garrulous conspiracy theorist Roscoe, and a bevy of other deftly rendered caricatures of all races, religions, and walks of life. Amid a blossoming romance between Kitty and "Booty Bandit" Bill, Roscoe suggests that he and the other cellmates create a moot court to expose any loopholes in Joe's case, so that's exactly what they do — with hilarious results. This mock trial, in fact, proves only slightly less absurd than Joe's subsequent real trial, during which he ill-advisedly represents himself, a decision that helps decide his ultimate fate under the gavel of Judge Gold.
Assadourian creates his characters onstage like a magician plying a deck of cards. He metamorphoses from one cellmate to the next with mind-boggling skill, creating a real sense of a crowded bullpen with only himself, two wooden boxes for seats, and a few well-timed sound and lighting cues by production designer Joan Racho-Jansen. Assadourian uses some familiar social and racial stereotypes and mannerisms to create spot-on impressions, which he executes with impressive precision. But as with all good satire, everyone gets spoofed in The Bullpen, including Assadourian, who portrays himself as a naïve, confused white guy prone to making extraordinarily bad decisions.
While he gets big laughs throughout, simmering beneath Assadourian's humor lies a more serious commentary on the bloated bureaucracy of a justice system bulging with relatively inoffensive offenders and incompetent practitioners of jurisprudence. The Bullpen, however, is far from a subway rant against the Establishment. Brimming with keen wit and well-crafted dialogue, it's an accomplished bit of absurdist writing that recalls, consciously or not, Joseph Heller's classic novel of military paradoxes, Catch-22. That said, Assadourian's tour-de-force performance alone makes The Bullpen a must-see.