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Theatre in Review: Fish Men (INTAR)

David Anzuelo, José Joaquín Pérerz, Ed Setrakian, Shawn Randall, Gardinder Comfort. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Fish Men takes place in the southwestern corner of New York's Washington Square Park, where on any given day, a match with a professional chess player can be had, for a price. At it happens, the playwright, Cándido Tirado, has some nifty chess moves of his own; what starts out as a group portrait of chess fanatics on a lazy summer's day by degrees becomes a tense, involving thriller that poses some very knotty moral questions about the ethics of revenge.

The title refers to "fish," unwary marks who get innocently drawn into increasingly high-stakes games, unaware they they are swimming with sharks, so to speak. As the play begins, two of the players need to land some fish ASAP. Cash, once a Ph.D. candidate, now a full-time chess hustler, is short of the money he needs to purchase the bike that he promised his semi-estranged son for his birthday; he has less than 24 hours to raise the cash. John, who plays the ponies with his chess winnings, has a bookie who is getting impatient; he is in danger of getting his hand -- "my money-maker," as he notes -- broken if he doesn't pay up now. And, on this particular day, the fish are scarce and both Cash and John are getting edgy about it.

Enter Rey, a young IT guy for a Midtown bank, carrying an envelope full of cash to pay off debts incurred by his uncle, who, the previous day, was "skinned alive" (Rey's words) by Cash and John. Rey comes across as easygoing and innocent; he also lets slip about his little gambling problem. By this point, Cash and John are seeing dollar signs, and they quickly get Rey to sit down for a little friendly match, for stakes of, say, twenty dollars. Oh, and because Rey and Cash are using John's table, he gets cut in for an additional twenty. Rey reluctantly agrees.

In short order, Rey is in debt to the tune of several hundred dollars, as Cash and John casually raise the pot from game to game. Looking on in dismay are Jerome, the last chess guy left in Washington Square who plays for fun, not profit, and the elderly Ninety-Two, once a chess prodigy and, later, a Holocaust survivor, who is still haunted by the horrors of his youth. This is a good place to mention that the cast of characters is as diverse as New York City: Cash is African-American, John is Belorusian, Jerome is Cherokee, and Rey is Guatemalan; Ninety-Two is not alone in having escaped from atrocities. Also, Cash, who likes to show off intellectually, delivers a mini-lecture about the many genocides of the twentieth century, arguing that man's inhumanity to man is standard operating procedure. All of this is relevant, for it helps to illuminate the fact that Rey is playing a tricky, and potentially deadly, game.

Tirado plots his tale so cunningly, upping the stakes so stealthily, that it's difficult to pinpoint the moment when Fish Men turns into such a nail-biter, but suffice to say that no matter how badly Cash and John need to make a killing, they are in way over their heads with Rey. The playwright also gives them plenty of lively dialogue. John, fed up with Jerome's penchant for pontification, sneers, in his muddled English syntax, "Baba ghanoush coming out of Jerome's mouth." Cash, getting sick of the others talking about genocide, shuts them down, saying, "The Atlantic Ocean is a cemetery full of my people." Jerome, bristling at a reference to Columbus Day, says, "Funny how this country celebrates my people's demise. I just want to point that out. Now we can all go back to see what those zany Kardashians are up to."

Fish Men requires five vividly drawn characterizations, a mission neatly accomplished under Lou Moreno's taut direction. In Shawn Randall's performance, Cash's motormouth tendencies never totally mask his deep-seated desperation, especially when his plan to fleece Rey goes so dangerously awry. As John, Gardiner Comfort reconciles the contradictions of a character who preys on the innocent, yet also peruses the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation; his gnawing anxiety in the play's later passages add to the tension. David Anzuelo is a powerfully moral presence as Jerome; the same goes for Ed Setrakian's Niney-Two, especially in a gripping passage about "the defeat of victory" that describes the chess match, held in the death camp, that saved his life yet forever ended his career. José Joaquín Pérez is a master con artist as Rey, making sure we're thoroughly anxious for him as his losses pile up, before revealing his disturbing true colors.

As a resident of Greenwich Village, I can vouch for the verisimilitude of Raul Abrego's set, which consists of a pair of chess tables, some additional benches, and a water fountain to which the characters sometimes repair to plot new strategems. Christopher J. Cancel-Pomales' lighting covers the stage with the bright sunlight of a summer day, carefully adding color only during certain heightened moments. Meghan E. Healey's costumes deftly comment on each character and his station in life. Jesse Mandapat's sound design captures the park's ambient noises.

It's possible that Fish Men ends on too neat a note, given the festering wounds afflicting some of its characters, but that won't keep you from being in a state of tense expectation throughout. Who knew chess could be so suspenseful? -- David Barbour

(22 February 2017)

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