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Babs Olusanmokun, Otto Sanchez, John Ventimiglia, and
Tonye Patano in Ponies
(Photo © George McLaughlin)
Ponies, by Mike Batistick, is a compelling comic drama that reflects the anxieties faced by recent immigrants to America. The main characters have fled their home countries because of war or other forms of strife but they find that America is not necessarily a safe haven, especially not in a post-9/11 world.

The play begins innocently enough. Three men while away an August afternoon at an Off Track Betting place in downtown Manhattan, putting their money on the "ponies." Ken (Babs Olusanmokun) is a Nigerian immigrant who's working as a taxi driver and is only there because of his friend Drazen (John Ventimiglia), a compulsive gambler who originally hails from Croatia. Drazen is a regular at this particular OTB site, as is Wallace (Otto Sanchez), a Latino cook at a nearby restaurant. Ken's cab has disappeared, and he tries to get Drazen to come with him to the police station; Ken is wary of the police because the last time he was in a police station, he was held for 72 hours after being pulled over for speeding. "I need a white man with me," he tells his friend. Drazen keeps saying that he'll go with him after one more race.

Drazen has an abrasive personality; he's an equal opportunity offender who makes racist, homophobic, and sexist jokes. He picks on the OTB's cashier (Tonye Patano) for being fat and makes similar remarks about his wife, whom he married to gain American citizenship. Bitter and unemployed, Drazen only finds solace in gambling. As the play progresses, we witness just how far he'll go to support his habit and maintain his way of life.

Ventimiglia, best known as restaurant owner Artie Bucco on The Sopranos, has a compelling stage presence that makes him fascinating to watch even as he spouts extremely offensive comments. Olusanmokun is also quite good, and his shift from politeness to anger is convincing. Sanchez is quite funny when speaking and interacting with the other characters but he seems at a loss as to what to do when his character is not in the forefront of the action. In contrast, Patano, who remains silent at her desk for the majority of the show, perfectly captures the attitude of someone who can sit around all day doing nothing because she's getting paid for it.

Director Nick Sandow keeps the play moving at a brisk pace. Victoria Imperioli's scenic and costume designs work well and are rendered with a close attention to detail. Rachel Connors' sound and lighting are likewise effective.

Batistick has an uneven hand as a playwright; at times, the dialogue in Ponies feels stilted, while at other moments it crackles with humor. The author pushes the envelope when it comes to jokes about traumatic incidents; he has the characters trade insults about everything from ethnic cleansing to female circumcision. The plot of the play at first seems fairly predictable but then it takes an unexpected turn that causes the audience to re-evaluate what it knows about each character. Batistick taps into fears of terrorism and the paranoid mindset that makes innocuous behavior suddenly seem suspicious. Ponies deals with such issues in an intelligent, dramatically compelling manner.

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