Nine Actors on the Head of a Pin
Try concocting a story around a corporate military base in Iraq, dabbling into torture as a means of retrieving information, add a young first-time-out ingénue as interrogator, an intractable administrator and at least one prison guard, then follow it up with a hard-boiled newspaper journalist back in New York, determined to get to the truth no matter who gets in her way — that adds up to a walloping cast of nine — insert a lesbian love affair to spice up the plot, and you’ve got a hell of a balancing act. The good news is in playwright turned director Frank Winters’ hands, nothing topples and everybody stays standing.
The world premiere at 59E59 Theatres of On the Head of a Pin is Winters’ second play (his first, Home Movies, was part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival in 2011) and is produced by Strangemen & Co. They describe themselves in the program as a “venue for great storytelling.” If this long (2 hours and 45 minutes with a 10 minute intermission) but remarkably taut script is any indication of their ambitions, these “strange men” definitely promise a broad appeal to theatre audiences.
In 2004, Sarah Kennedy is ostensibly hired as an Arabic translator for a military prison a few miles outside of Baghdad. Rudely awakened to her real role as an interrogator, she is ill-prepared for the task, but masking her need for health insurance to cover a sick husband, she has little choice but to stay. But there’s an even greater problem here: Sarah is a good-hearted if unprepared young woman, caught up in circumstances beyond her control. As played by Emily Fleischer (a SUNY acting graduate, along with Winters and several other cast members), we never doubt her sincerity. It is one instance in the casting where her youth and ingenuousness serve the play well.
It’s Manhattan, three years later. Enter Lily Strauss, a disgraced journalist who approaches Jon Lowe, the new interim editor of The Guardian, for her job back. She’s hell-bent to prove that the second time around she can deliver a headline story, with the proper sources to back it up. Lowe reluctantly gives in, knowing the paper’s reputation could be on the line if Lily can’t deliver, but subscriptions are falling, and Lily’s on fire with her own ambition and conviction that right is right, no matter what.
Sofia Lauwers as Lily has, in some respects, a more difficult task for her character than Sarah’s. She must convince us that she has the grit to carry through on her promises, even if that doesn’t make her a very nice person in the process. Lauwers plays Lily as a razor-sharp bitch on a rollercoaster through most of the play, but there’s often danger in the portrayal and the writing of an essentially one-note characterization. It’s one of the pitfalls of putting such jaded roles on young shoulders — there’s a tendency to overplay where a more mature actor could ease into an enhanced perfect fit for the role. To her credit, when confronted by her young assistant Gwen’s infatuation, her crusty exterior begins to crack, a more compassionate and believable side emerging. Devin Dunne Cannon’s portrayal of Gwen as the wide-eyed intern is totally captivating (her credits include 30 Rock) — another instance where the actual age of the performer seems pitch-perfect for the part. Her character’s zest for life and love is so infectious, she could fall for the frog prince and we’d believe her.
Overall, Winters’ ample cast is well-rehearsed and highly intelligent in their portrayals. They can be excused for a little excess — with such heavy, morally-laden subject matter with which to grapple, all nine of them make for a highly credible ensemble. At Fahtoum prison, Jen Tullock’s administrator is an effective counterpoint to Sarah’s naïveté and Marcus Callender as a guard who gets caught up in Sarah’s plight is a strongly believable presence — especially important for the prison sequences, where the worst events happen off-stage and our only sense of the gravity of the situation is recounted secondhand.
Meanwhile, events back on the New York front are held aloft by James Ortiz’s excellent, hard-working editor. His confrontations, whether with the volatile Lily or a threatening snake-tongued district attorney played by Jennifer Loring, are level-headed and authentic-feeling, given the high-pressured position of his office. Will Gallacher plays a quietly thoughtful, wounded veteran who knows the score and provides supportive backup to Lily’s rages. Jason Ralph as a smooth-talking “yes” man, (last seen on Broadway in Peter and the Starcatcher) looks convincingly the other way when the prison supported by his corporation does the devil’s work.
As a playwright, Winters has delivered a fast-paced, straight-on, suspenseful script — if a bit overlong — that carries us on the journey from bad to good. There’s little irony here — the dialogue is at times reminiscent of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who brought the newspaper life into the spotlight in the thirties with The Front Page. On a more serious note, the realism from the pen of Clifford Odets or even Paddy Chayefsky’s later best work for television and film comes to mind. When Lily tells the editor that his paper isn’t going anywhere, here’s his response: “See, this is the difference between us, I don’t get to be a cowboy. You get to come in here with a flashy story and stir up blood but I’m the guy that has to make sure we all have jobs in the morning, make sure there’s ink on paper. I don’t have the luxury of fighting the good fight.”
Other Winters characters exhibit the same self-righteous twang. The prison guard insists that keeping the prisoner on the “other side of the door” saves lives. It keeps his friends from getting blown up or buildings from falling down in New York. “Maybe we’re all going to hell for it, but if that’s the sacrifice I have to make for my friends and my country and my family, then I’ll take the trip.”
Conversely, the wounded veteran is more self-effacing. He can contemplate a Baghdad prison in the July heat, but what does it all mean to him? “I don’t know. I leave that up to smarter men than I, better men. You know — guys with TV shows and stuff.” Gwen, the young intern, tries to make sense of it all. “I was at the Starbucks and all I could think was here I am buying coffee while there are people halfway across the world, who are being mutilated, and here I am.”
This is the kind of script that demands honesty from its performers and Winters has proven himself a director who can pull it out of his cast. It’s a meat-and-potatoes writing that can shine when done well. The pacing is quick — sometimes too quick — with the scene transitions between Iraq and New York made possible by Ortiz’s efficient multi-door set. If you blink you could miss an entrance or exit, but it works and we’re swept along for the ride. Special care has been given to the costuming by Carol Uraneck and Amanda Kullman. The daily corporate world and the world of Fahtoum are well-delineated.
In a universe where unspeakable violence is commonplace and answers to the big questions are not, Winters has given us characters that at the least are trying to understand. The tragic plight of journalists like Marie Colvin and others who kept going back into the fray for answers make plays like Winters’ still worth producing.
If I’m allowed a pun, nine actors — and maybe an angel or two in the wings — are balanced quite nicely on the head of Frank Winters’ pen.
(“On the Head of a Pin” is currently running through March 10th at 59E59 Theatres located at 59 E 59th St., New York, NY, 10022. For tickets or information about the play, call 212-753-5959 or visit www.59E59.org.)
Featured photo: L-R: Emily Fleischer and Marcus Callender in “On the Head of a Pin” at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Credit: Hunter Canning.