“What did they do to you?” asks one prisoner at the beginning of Craig Wright’s “The Unseen.” “Oh, you know,” answers his fellow inmate. “Nothing novel.” It’s the first of several wise observations in Wright’s smart, problematic new play: Torture is now so commonplace that one must offer something new, and not merely in terms of creative abuse. In fits and starts, the playwright offers something new here, mostly in the form of a prison guard beautifully played by Thomas Ward. Wright’s play also does a lot that has been done before and better, but it has redemptive power.
There is, at this point, a whole subgenre of torture plays, including Harold Pinter’s “One for the Road” and Lee Blessing’s “Two Rooms.” Like those plays, “The Unseen” initially appears both urgent and unnecessary: Yes, we know torture is wrong. Yes, we wish our former president hadn’t opened a prison in Cuba for suspected terrorists. No, no one in the theater voted for him. From the play’s beginning, though, Wright’s characters evince a knack for comedy that’s notably absent from plays with similar settings, so it’s worth sticking around and paying attention.
Wright sets his drama, first seen at the Humana Festival in 2007, in a prison with three cells visible to the audience — two with open walls so that we can see the inhabitants, and one closed off, with only a window visible. On Sarah Brown’s austere set, the three are all on different levels, implying a height that can’t quite be achieved on the stage of the Cherry Lane.
Within these cells sit a Beckettian pair of unfortunates who have only ever heard each other’s voices, calling word games and meager news to one another across the cell block. Wallace (Steven Pounders) is verbose and decorous, always referring to his companion as “Mr. Valdez.” Valdez (Stan Denman) is less verbally gifted, letting Wallace speak as much and as often as he wants. Sometimes, though, Valdez gets an urge so strong he has to report it, usually in the form of a monologue Wallace hears and then dismisses (“I have some news for you from the tragic land of observable reality,” he snips). One thinks, the other feels, recalling Vladimir and Estragon.
Both men live in terror of Ward’s prison guard, whom Valdez calls Smash and Wallace calls Mr. Smeija. This guard, who regularly tortures the two men, has problems of his own, and they’re not that surprising: He hates his job. This is something he can confide only to the prisoners, but confide it he does — the three men have a weird sort of friendship. After all, as Wallace points out, “We are, in every sense, here for you.”
Smash is not a character you see very often onstage. Most writers are interested in exploring the courage of the oppressed or the evil of the oppressors, but rarely does someone like Smash get to have his say. There are some interesting scenes in Sarah Kane’s “Cleansed” along these lines, but that’s the only piece that comes to mind. The dramatic problem with this honest device is that it robs the play of a villain, making misery appear simply to be a random cost of the human condition. That’s pretty astute, just not very comforting.
The play has an odd provenance for Off Broadway: Both helmer Lisa Denman and Stan Denman, who plays Valdez, are professors at Texas-based Baptist university Baylor and members of its American Actors Company. The production is the second in Gotham for the troupe (the first was Horton Foote’s “The Traveling Lady”), and while its technical values are unimpeachable, “The Unseen” lacks depth. Wright’s work feels unfinished not because there’s a longer story to tell but because he could tell this one better.