On paper, the idea of a fresh take on Georg Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” moving the story to the mean streets of New York post-9/11, is an intriguing one. But Brett C. Leonard, the author of the Labyrinth Theater Co.’s “Guinea Pig Solo,” doesn’t make much of a case for his theatrical experiment. There’s no questioning the commitment of John Ortiz, the febrile young actor who stars as a disturbed Iraq war vet struggling to stay afloat, but even his intense performance quickly palls in the context of this ponderous, ineffective production.
Although it is not credited as an adaptation, Leonard’s play follows closely the essential outlines of Buchner’s influential early 19th century work, which pointed the way toward German expressionism and absurdist writers of more than a century later. (Today, Alban Berg’s atonal operatic version is staged far more frequently than the original play.) Jose Solo (Ortiz), like Woyzeck, is a soldier (well, an ex-soldier) who moonlights as a barber, is exploited for scientific research by a doctor, ridiculed by a superior (here a cop) and driven by jealousy to murder his wife. Leonard’s play is, like Buchner’s, composed of brief, fragmentary scenes — a reflection of the character’s increasingly disordered mind.
But this version, directed with a lack of focus by Ian Belton, veers jaggedly between earthy satire and portentous, imagistic drama. Scenes between Jose and his pal Gary (Stephen Adly Guirgis) are marked by the kind of profane, absurdist ranting that has become a specialty at the Labyrinth — notably in Guirgis plays like “Jesus Hopped the A Train” and “Our Lady of 21st Street.” But Leonard’s writing in this vein, while occasionally scabrously funny, more often comes across as flabby and self-indulgent. Interspersed among the expletive-splattered riffs are ominous silent tableaux, often featuring Jose’s morose, speechless son, Junior, wanly bouncing a blue ball.
There are some commendable contributions. The disordered set by Andromache Chalfant, seemingly composed of industrial detritus, effectively suggests a host of urban environments; it’s lit with comparable variety, from glaring, flashbulb bursts to the soft glow of candlelight, by Paul Whitaker.
Jose’s wife, Vivian, is played with poignant delicacy by Judy Reyes, giving the evening’s most cohesive and affecting performance. Separated from her abusive husband, and emotionally adrift, Vivian falls in with an abusive cop. He takes her to the zoo, where Junior falls under the psychic spell of a zookeeper, who proceeds to decorate the play with grim monologues about the strange behaviors of various animal species when exposed to extreme duress.
Buchner’s original contains similarly grotesque imagery underscoring the bestiality that human society shares with the natural world. But as with many of Leonard’s other attempts to translate Buchner’s vision into contemporary terms, the effect here is leaden and obvious — the frequent scenes showing Jose running frenziedly in place, or on a treadmill rodentlike, are a case in point.
Added into the mix are some polemical interpolations of Leonard’s own: The doctor using Jose for his experiments harangues him about the glory of military duty, while Jose himself is haunted not by general visions of apocalypse, as in the original, but specific memories of the killings he committed in combat.
Buchner’s play, which was left unfinished and in fragments, is nevertheless cohesive in tone and style. It draws its power from the spellbinding singularity of its skewed vision. Leonard’s version, wandering aimlessly among a variety of tones and styles, is too disordered and murky to have any dramatic potency.