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Vile imprisonment and brutal torture—”stretching us, cracking us, screaming at us, spitting on us, raping us, attacking us with dogs, and masturbating us over and over while crowds of laughing monsters ejaculate on our faces while we cry”—do not typically make for an evening of dull theater. But at a recent performance of Craig Wright’s brusque 70-minute drama The Unseen, several distinct snores pervaded the Cherry Lane auditorium. One couple, apparently unwilling to enjoy a nice nap, staged their own prison break—fleeing the theater during a brief scene change. Though unremittingly violent and loud, The Unseen, directed by Lisa Denman, is an exercise in dramatic tedium.
Wright’s characters, Wallace (Steven Pounders) and Valdez (Stan Denman), are also bored stiff. They’ve spent more than a decade trapped in a nameless prison, ignorant of the crimes they’ve committed. Occasional torture sessions, administered by the tormented guard Smash (Thomas Ward), relieve the monotony of their days. Held in isolation and unable to see one another, they bellow conversations through their cell wall. Throughout these clamorous chats, they explore every aspect of their captivity, except how much their plight resembles incidents drawn from Kafka, Orwell, Beckett, Abu Ghraib, etc.
The subject matter is overfamiliar, and the writing is overwrought. Wallace worries that news of the outside world might “fill the heart with unsatisfiable hunger for the peach that can never be reached.” Smash delivers a gruesome monologue on the subject of eye, tongue, and vocal cord extraction. (Apparently, eyes are quite squishy.) Wright exploits gruesomely vivid imagery and figurative language, though rarely to much effect. Sometimes he turns to allegory, as when Wallace reflects on his own experience as a means to understand the universal human condition: “All that’s plain as day,” he says, “is that we’re brought here against our will, and we’re continually tortured and starved.” That’s a dreary view of the life—and Wright has written a dreary play to announce it.