Guinea Pig Solo
Brett C. Leonard and the LAByrinth Theater Company are exceptions to the discouraging "don't ask" rule. They're offering Guinea Pig Solo, a bold piece of theater that's ripped from the headlines, as they say. The headlines in this case are at least as recent as August 2003 and the east coast power blackout, during which Leonard sets the climactic development of a work for which he's using Georg Büchner's 19th-century downer Woyzeck as foundation. Büchner's is the seminal piece, based on a true story, in which the eponymous Army barber makes extra money to support his common-law wife and son by undergoing physical and psychological experiments. Stressed out post-traumatically, he comes to believe that his wife is cheating on him and eventually does something violent about it.
Büchner died before completing his agitated work, leaving disorganized fragments of it. Leonard -- crafty dramatist that he proves to be -- uses fragmentation as a device, combining the play's plot points with some overlapping contemporary coincidences. His Woyzeck is a Puerto Rican vet named José Solo (John Ortiz), trying to make ends meet in Manhattan by holding down two jobs. He shuttles between a food cart and a barber's chair in hopes of putting a few dollars by with which to win back his estranged wife Vivian (Judy Reyes) and get through to his pre-adolescent son Junior (Alexander Flores), who's stopped speaking and spends time bouncing a blue ball against the walls of Andromache Chalfant's multi-level set. (LAByrinth seems to gravitate towards plays that require restraining fences, such as Stephen Adly Guirgis's Broadway-bound Jesus Hopped the A Train.)
Fired from his food-cart position for getting a ticket (he left the cart unattended while going to the toilet), José befriends a gregarious cop named Charlie (Richard Petrocelli), who becomes a confidant along with José's feet-on-the-ground pal Gary (the above-noted Stephen Adly Guirgis in a return to the stage). José also finds some comfort in talking to Dr. Kramer (Robert Glaudini), who's conducting a sleep deprivation experiment as an adjunct to therapy. It's an odd endeavor, since José -- who fears that he'll do something drastic while dreaming -- is unable to sleep. Vivian has obtained restraining orders against José but is unable to move on, though she does talk to friend Nikki (Portia) and tries to find romance with a strong-armed policeman named John (Jason Manuel Olazabal).
Because Leonard has adapted Büchner's disjointed piece so skillfully, he achieves a collage effect akin to the quick-cut approach that, say, Michael Herr employed in Dispatches. There's a choppiness to these 40-plus scenes -- directed with urgency by Ian Belton -- that mirrors the difficulty José has in attempting to focus. Scenes overlap, as do the noises that sound designer Fitz Patton has spliced into the proceedings; because José sang songs to Vivian early in their love affair, Sammy Davis's recording of "Blame It on My Youth" plays repeatedly between resounding booms that signal the end of some of the play's vignettes. Paul Whitaker's lighting design is similarly blaring or muted. Everything is calculated by Leonard and collaborators to throw the audience off-balance, just as José has been thrown off balance.
If Leonard has miscalculated about anything in his furious screed -- a work that the current President's cabinet might benefit from seeing if they're able to benefit from anything that's real, unflinching, and unspinnable -- it's in his inclusion of a character called Linda (Kim Director), a zoo guide who gives stern speeches about survival and to whom the silent Junior is drawn. Her repeated appearances, during which she frequently compares animal behavior with human behavior, tinge the play with pretense. The intrusion has the effect of a flatted note being introduced into a plangent tonic chord. (It's a relief when Linda shows up with the rambunctious Gary as someone he's picked up and the two of them hilariously go at sex as might some of the uninhibited animals about whom she's been expounding.)
The dynamism of Leonard's playwriting is matched and then some by the cast, John Ortiz foremost among them. One of the co-founders of this enterprising and impressively committed company, he's also one of their best actors. From the get-go, when he has to deliver a list of foods that he dispenses from his cart, Ortiz is on top of the material and at the top of his form. Agile as a gymnast at the parallel bars, he more than once has to haul himself onto an upper level of the set as if scaling a building and he also has to deliver some speeches from a treadmill. He's up for all of it. Leonard has written any number of monologues that have the immediacy and pizzazz of arias for the play's fumbling yet articulate characters; Ortiz persuasively delivers a high percentage of these speeches, including a diatribe to Gary about the hopeless prospects of the common man. "I'm Afghanistan," he rants during the three- or four-minute outburst, "Operation Iraqi Occupation. Vietnam. I'm the mothafuckin' beaches of Normandy." Beautiful writing, beautiful acting.
Just about everyone else in the cast revels in the arias that Leonard abundantly provides. Stephen Adly Guirgis cagily plays Gary, whose amusement at the passing scene contrasts with José's pessimism; he's a hoot when he grapples with Kim Director as the finally libidinous Linda. Richard Petrocelli looks and acts so much like a cop on the beat that he seems to have wandered in from the street. He's also got a dead-on delivery that makes his banter about life being a "Louis Armstrong world" extremely funny and, in context, exquisitely poignant. Judy Reyes commmunicates Vivian's internal struggle in reuniting with José, greatly assisting Leonard in making the point that not only are soldiers devastated by combat but so are their families. Alexander Flores's somber, pained Junior strengthens that argument. Robert Glaudini is fine as a doctor; so are the one-named Portia in the dual roles of Nikki and an officious hospital worker and Jason Manuel Olazabal as the policeman on the make.