Friday, February 19, 2021

476. SHORT EYES. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Tito Goya, Felipe Torres.
SHORT EYES [Drama/Crime/Homosexuality/Prison] A: Miguel Pinero; D: Marvin Felix Camillo; S: David Mitchell; C: Paul Martino; L: Spencer Mosse; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Florence S. Anspacher Theatre (OB); 2/28/74-4/14/74 (54); Vivian Beaumont Theatre; 5/23/74-8/4/74 (156) (total: 210)

Shocking for its time, Short Eyes is a nearly documentary drama of life in the dayroom of a New York City prison, written by a Puerto Rican ex-convict. It was first produced Off Broadway by a workshop group made up of other ex-cons called “The Family.” Its leader was director Marvin Felix Camillo. Joseph Papp moved it from its Off-Off mounting at the Theatre of the Riverside Church to a showing at the Public. He then startled his subscription audience at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in the pristine surroundings of Lincoln Center, where the play's vulgar language, deviant sexual behavior, and violent action proved deeply unsettling.

Robert Maroff, H. Richard Young.

A richly ambiguous play given a brilliantly veristic interpretation by a company that practically lived the story, Short Eyes paraded a diverse assortment of prisoners across the stage. Most were Black or Hispanic, but the white convict, Murphy (Joseph Carberry), and the newly admitted Clark Davis (William Carden), an alleged child molester, were central. Murphy sides with the insecure white prisoner against the darker-skinned thugs until he learns what Davis’s crime was. 

Child molestation is considered by the inmates the worst crime possible, one that instantly makes Davis a pariah among outcasts. Only Juan (Bimbo), a saintly Puerto Rican convict, shows him any compassion, although he, too, despises this “short eyes” (slang for child molester). Ultimately, the men gang up on Davis, and Murphy slits his throat.

Joseph Carberry, William Carden.

There is never a clear-cut case against the confused “Short Eyes,” for Pinero neither definitely establishes his guilt nor denies it. Pinero’s closely observed junkies, thieves, and murderers, his realistic and profane language, his striking confrontations, and his hangman’s humor made Short Eyes one of the most respected examples of its genre.

Hollis Barnes, Bimbo, Kenny Steward, Johnny Johnson, Tito Goya, Joseph Carberry, Robert Maroff, Ben Jefferson, Felipe Torres.

“His dialogue sizzles with truth,” wrote Clive Barnes, who was enthralled by the plotting, authenticity, and honesty. According to Walter Kerr, this otherwise powerful slice of jailhouse life was too close to its sources, lacking the objectivity to view them with unimpeded artistry: “it is the fact not the form that counts.” “Every harrowing moment of it bears the stamp of passionate feeling.” But John Simon considered it “effective theatre, well put together, tightly acted, and staged with forcefulness and variety.”

Bimbo, Joseph Carberry.

A rare negative responses came from Stanley Kauffmann, who accused the play of being too similar to a host of TV, film, and theatrical works depicting life behind bars.

Short Eyes won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and OBIE, while Miguel Pinero was given a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Playwright. Camillo won both an OBIE and a Drama Desk Award for his direction, while David Mitchell walked off with a Drama Desk Award for his set design.