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Theatre in Review: Whorl Inside a Loop (Second Stage)

Sherie Rene Scott. Photo: Joan Marcus

If you're looking for a sheer explosion of talent, you can't do much better than Whorl Inside a Loop, in which half a dozen black actors bring to life a roomful of convicts with lively, funny, harrowing, and thoroughly riveting stories to tell. At least a couple of them will be familiar to regular theatregoers. For example, Derrick Baskin is Sunnyside, whose manner is as cheerful and charming as the name implies, although the prison warden declines to name the unforgivable crime he has committed. Anyway, Sunnyside recounts his job as a shoe salesman in the 1980s, most notably the day that the store's manager, frightened by the still-new AIDS epidemic, instituted a change in policy forbidding the touching of customers' feet. ("To this day, I'm grateful that my last foot was a good foot.") Chris Myers, who got a lot of attention in Brandon Jacob-Jenkins' An Octoroon, is Jeffrey, who offers a searing memory of his mother confessing that she is infected with HIV. ("On August 1, 2000, my mom died of what we agreed to call cancer.") Her death is so devastating that, when he witnesses a murder a few months later, he takes responsibility for the crime.

Even more exciting are Baskin and Myers' lesser-known colleagues. The naturally charismatic Nicholas Christopher, as Rick, offers a jolting account of watching a prison buddy who, denied the right to attend his mother's funeral, seeks out a savage revenge. ("We watched the kid rear up the bonecrusher, and start stabbing the Sec Dep over and over and over. 'This is for my mother.'") Ryan Quinn is Source, who tells of the time he came agonizingly close to committing murder, pulling himself back from the brink with nanoseconds to spare. ("The words 'It's not worth it' escaped my lips and the world started to spin again.") Daniel J. Watts is Flex, who presents a vivid picture of New York's mean streets in the late '70s ("Sadly, my father was on his way to prison and my brother was preparing to step up to the proverbial plate of earning the bread by delivering the poison that would destroy our neighborhood, while the 'Son of Sam' was lurking around the corner.") And Donald Webber, Jr., is Bey, who recalls the disturbing boyhood memory of the hot Alabama afternoon when a sheriff in jeans and a Stetson -- "The first white person I've ever seen up close" -- slips a pair of handcuffs around his wrists.

And then there's Sherie Rene Scott, who is both the evening's catalyst and its biggest question mark. She is The Volunteer, a Broadway star with a career and personal life not unlike that of...Sherie Rene Scott. She shows up at the prison to run a 12-week program called Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative. (The name is chosen by the men, who clearly have had access to academic catalogs.) Despite the coy character name, The Volunteer is basically the same dizzily self-adoring diva figure that Scott played in Everyday Rapture, her last theatre piece. In the previous show, she was a riot, and here it first looks like we're going to be treated to a classic fish-out-of-water comedy. It's fun to see her daintily make her way through prison security, surrendering her cell phone with the grace of one being asked to give up a limb, tripping the security system with the underwire in her bra, and getting the unnerving news from the warden that the men in her group have all been convicted of murder, one of them wrongly. "Can I sit next to that one?" Scott asks, nervously.

Let the Pirandellian games begin: In real life, Scott did run a similar program at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, and the most vivid portions of Whorl Inside a Loop, which is officially written by Scott and Dick Scanlan, are the passages contributed by Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat, and Jeffrey Rivera, veterans of her class. Clearly, Scott and Scanlan have conceived the play as a way of showcasing the men's writing, but the scenes featuring The Volunteer, her entourage of shallow Broadway types, and the dark secret that is her real reason for running the class, come to seem intrusions that must be endured before we get back to the good stuff. This is especially true when The Volunteer shifts from narcissist to predator, secretly working up a theatre piece based on the men's monologues without their knowledge or approval. Adding to her deception, she agrees to let them do their own prison performance, for an audience that is to include Hillary Clinton -- an experience that each man feels will improve his chances of getting paroled. By this point, Scott's character has become an active irritant; it doesn't help that, before they can provide the basis for real drama, both The Volunteer's blatant betrayal and her secret are swept away in favor of an extra-theatrical twist that is more copout than coup de théâtre. The direction, by Scanlan and Michael Mayer, never finds a halfway house where breezy comedy and disturbing social observations can happily coexist.

Even with this shaky narrative frame, the men are marvelous, both as the characters mentioned above and doubling as prison personnel and The Volunteer's magpie friends and service providers. Thanks to them, Whorl Inside a Loop has no shortage of crowd-pleasing moments. And, given the current national conversation about black men and the legal system, it has a currency few other new plays can boast of. One of the most telling insights is offered in what may be The Volunteer's one moment of real introspection, when she muses, "I think l've done things that, if I were a black man, I wouldn't have gotten away with."

The production is a typically classy Second Stage design package, beginning with the set, by Christine Jones and Brett Banakis, that strips away all masking, placing the action on a bare raised stage. It's a stark look that is all too fitting for this account of creativity under incarceration. Donald Holder's lighting subtly shifts the atmosphere, particularly in the later scenes, adding visual interest almost subliminally. ESosa's costumes amusingly contrast orange prison jumpsuits with The Volunteer's expensive-looking casual wear. This is the rare New York theatre production without a sound designer.

Well-intentioned, filled with talent, Whorl Inside a Loop -- a reference to a fingerprint pattern that looks like it is going somewhere but never does -- is something of a mess. In any number of passages it captivates, but when the focus shifts away from the men in prison, you may have to simply grin and bear it. -- David Barbour.

(27 August 2015)

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