Two men are imprisoned and tortured for reasons unknown in Craig Wright’s allegorical new play, The Unseen, now at the Cherry Lane Theatre. However, the playwright isn’t really interested in uncovering the motivations of the mysterious totalitarian regime that’s done this. The play instead becomes an oddly touching meditation on faith, and what happens when everything you thought you knew turns out to be wrong.
Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman) have been on the same cell block for nearly 10 years, able to talk but unable to see one another. They pass the time playing memory games, trying to keep their minds sharp. Wallace, the more intellectual of the two, even believes that through careful observation and snippets of conversation that he’s overheard while being tortured, he’s been able to figure out the layout of the prison — including an escape route. It’s perhaps indicative of his mental state that his plan involves a red velvet passageway, hot air balloons, and champagne.
Valdez, on the other hand, becomes convinced that a third inmate has been placed in the cell between himself and Wallace. He interprets the scratchings he hears from the other side of the wall to be an otherwise voiceless female prisoner who is trying to explain to him what is going on outside the confines of the prison and offer possible salvation.
Over the course of the play, both prisoners experience moments of hope and of disillusionment. Their attempts to decipher the signs offered to them result in beliefs that are, on the surface, rather ludicrous. And yet, Wright’s point seems to be that any kind of belief system is predicated on being able to make a leap of faith. The real challenge comes when you’re forced to go on even after learning new information that causes you to question or even abandon previously held ideas about the very nature of your existence.
Neither play nor production is overly naturalistic. There’s a poetic quality to the language, particularly the speeches made by Wallace. And while the clothes that Carl Booker has outfitted the prisoners in are dirty and torn, you never really get the sense that these men have been undergoing intense physical torture for years.
Pounders and Denman do serviceable work as the prisoners, with the latter perhaps uncovering a little more of his character’s emotional depths. However, it’s Thomas Ward as their guard and sometime torturer — nicknamed Smash — who delivers the most commanding performance. His empathy for his captives is initially presented as almost comical, but his final speech about how he’s attempted to rectify this perceived flaw in his character is absolutely chilling.
Although The Unseen runs a mere 75 minutes, the pacing of director Lisa Denman’s production still seems somewhat lax. But even if it’s not as tight as it could be, the play itself offers the viewer sufficient food for thought, and it is likely to linger in one’s mind.