Between the Bars, the new drama by Lynn Clay Byrne at HERE Arts Center, tests its characters’ limits of loyalty and love, using the visiting room of a prison as a microscope slide to study, a microcosm of life’s losers. Seven actors portray fourteen-plus characters: inmates, guards and visitors, all full of twisted emotions, greed and lust.
The action takes place in Bryce Cutler’s stark prison meeting room set. Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting amplifies the dreariness of the room while also flashing off and on to indicate scene changes, helped by Adrian Bridges’ frightening sound design.
The mood is set with the reading, in the dark, of one of McGee’s (Juan Arturo) poems ruminating on his inner turmoil. The entrance of two female visitors starts the drama rolling.
Arlene (Carol Todd) is the loudmouth, outrageously flirtatious mother of the slightly childlike Chad (Christopher Mowod). Arlene has dragged the much younger Sorrell (Katie Mack), her hairdresser, as a peace offering for McGee. Chad is jealous of Sorrell’s attention to McGee and is also disappointed that his mom didn’t bring him any drugs.
Mack and Arturo later morph into a far more dysfunctional couple: a fearfully passive Eve and Zeke, a mucho possessive Latino. This inevitably leads to outbursts of violence due to Zeke’s jealous rages.
Also passing nervously through the not-so-secure security check post is Tisah (Nowani Rattray), the mother of Attis (Chad Carstarphen), imprisoned because he refused to betray his brother. These two actors also take on other characters: Kaley, a wannabe teacher, and Massud whose young cousin, Mohawk (Akeil Davis), is having a particularly hard time.
Plates of home baked cookies seem to be especially valued by the prisoners even though they are usually stolen by the dishonest guards (Davis and Mowod) who wield their power injudiciously. Drugs are surreptitiously and freely passed around.
The characters are sometimes difficult to distinguish because the changes often involve nothing more than the addition or elimination of headgear (perfect costumes by Devario D. Simmons), but the skilled cast swiftly makes all these shifts distinguishable.
Why should anyone be interested in a rehash of characters and behaviors that have become the basic ingredient of procedural police dramas and reality crime TV shows? The answer is one word: immediacy.
Benjamin Viertel directs Between the Bars brilliantly finding the balance between theatricality and reality. Each character emerges as distinct and multidimensional, even the guards who sit passively until they show their savage sides. This is a cast of fine actors who communicate both the indignities of confinement and its ultimate tragic toll just feet away from the audience.
Between the Bars (through October 30, 2021)
HERE Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets visit http://www.BetweentheBarsPlay.com
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission