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Theater review: 'Short Eyes' at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

December 6, 2011 | 11:45 am

Profane, funny, and packed with more crotch-grabbing than vintage Madonna, the current revival of Miguel Piñero’s prison drama “Short Eyes” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center burns with vivid life.

Geronimo Guzman’s terrific set puts you in the middle of the action: With its stained concrete walls and metal tables bolted to the floor, the day room of this detention center extends right to the first row of seats, and it’s hard to remember when I’ve felt so immediately engaged by a production’s use of space. Within minutes, the cast has you feeling the outside world might be something you only imagined. 

Every man on the prison tier has a survival strategy, the first being to stick with his own race. “Justice means ‘just us white folks,’” cracks El Raheem (Donte Wince), a Nation of Islam believer at odds with Irish bruiser Longshoe (Mark Rolston). But the arrival of alleged pedophile Clark (Matthew Jaeger) shifts alliances among prisoners (and guards, including Cris D’Annunzio’s combustible Mr. Nett). Does the slightly built, middle-class Clark — nicknamed “short eyes” for his predilections — stand a chance in this shark tank? Is he guilty? If so, what punishment does he deserve?

Director Julian Acosta keeps the pace taut and the stakes clear, drawing specific, impassioned performances from his ensemble: Miguel Amenyinu and Matias Ponce are hilarious as young fitness buddies, while old-timer Carl Crudup makes a multi-course meal of a monologue about a certain photo of Jane Fonda. And Jaeger, in an almost impossible role, conveys credible anguish at the memory of his illicit encounters.

Piñero wrote his groundbreaking drama while serving time for armed robbery in Sing Sing; the play went on to Broadway and became a staple in audition rooms. This co-production by Urban Theatre Movement and the Latino Theater Company returns “Short Eyes” to its urgent roots: the desire for human connection and its often devastating consequences.

--Charlotte Stoudt 

“Short Eyes,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles.  8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18. $30, limited $10 seats on Thursdays. (866) 811-4111 or Running time: 2 hours. 

Photo: Matthew Jaeger, left, and Cris D'Annunzio in "Short Eyes." Credit: Federico Mata.