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A CurtainUp Review
Cool Hand Luke

They shot him. Jes like that they did. Right in the neck. Bosses came an' picked him up. Dragged him into a car, all twitchin' an' shiverin'. They could see he was bleedin' to death. Shoulda gone to the hospital in Orlando. But Boss Godfrey insisted on takin' him to the county jail. Hundred an' twenty miles away. Daid on arrival.
— Dragline
Cool Hand of Luke
(L to R) Jason Stanley, Julia Torres, Lawrence Jansen,Nick Paglino (Photo by Jason Woodruff)
Donn Pearce's allegorical novel Cool Hand Luke gets its stage legs at 59E59 Theatres this season. As adapted by Emma Reeves, this version is a distilled and intense rendering of the tale but might leave fans of the 1967 film of the same name (with Paul Newman) a whiff disappointed.

First, the good news: Lawrence Jansen steps into the iconic role with an effortless grace and the acting ensemble are right in theatrical step with him. The Reeves adaptation is based on the 1965 novel, not the famous film that followed. It's free of all extraneous details, without losing the essence of the tale. And Joe Tantalo directs with a steely grip, without wasting an inch of space in the black box venue.

screen performance in the movie still hovers over the stage. Though Tantalo's mounting is admirable for its economy, verve and strong ensemble, the film and charismatic Newman performance stil hold the aces.

But if you can ignore that screen ghost, this Cool Hand Luke has much going for it. As adapted by Reeves, it neatly retells the ballad of Luke Jackson, the decorated war-hero who knocked the heads off of parking meters and ended up serving time at a Florida prison camp on a chain gang. Based on Donn Pearce's own prison experiences in a chain gang, the story has the raw sting of reality, the stage adaptation has deftly folded of the famous lines from the novel into the play (like the guards quip to the convicts of "Git yer mind right"), and makes them hum authenticity.

The play includes the fabled episode where Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Though the e stylistic staging is less visceral than the film, it does work in making a folk hero out of Luke to his fellow convicts.

The infamous "box" is artfully simulated on stage by lighting designer Maruti Evans. This cramped space is reserved for convicts who commit any infractions against the prison camp's regulations. Indeed Luke becomes a temporary denizen of the "box" immediately following his mother's death, underscoring how the guards kept trying to crush his spirit when he was most vulnerable.

The allegorical element is overdone here with a gospel singer who enters and exits in pivotal scenes. The singer clearly represents the theme of religion (and how Luke deals with his Christian upbringing). But her recurring presence puts a distracting brake on the play-at-large.

Maruti Evans, who wears two hats here, has created a Spartan-styled set that is clutter-free and suitably complemented with a glaring wash of lights. Indeed you get the Big Brother-is-watching effect to the nth degree. Orli Nativ has conjured up state-issue outfits a la tank tops and weathered pants that add a touch of realism, and sharply counterpoint the stylized production.

Despite the piece's flaws, this Cool Hand Luke is well worth a look. Like its literary predecessor and later celebrated film, it vividly depicts the sadistic behaviors and practices that go on within and without the walls of law enforcement agencies. And with the recent police brutality headlines, who can argue for this play's relevance today?

Incidentally, Tantalo, the Artistic Director of Godlight Theatre Company Godlight Theatre Company, has already presented six other page-to-stage works at the 59E59 Theatre complex ( Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse Five, Deliverance, and In the Heat of the Night, The Basketball Diaries and Fahrenheit 451. And one can only wonder what other classic novel Godlight will tackle next.

Cool Hand Luke
Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, adapted by Emma Reeves
Directed by Joe Tantalo
Cast: Kristina Doelling (Mrs. Jackson/Girl/Lucille), Lars Drew (Curly), Lawrence Jansen (Luke Jackson), Ken King (Carr/Cop), Nick Paglino (Boss Godfrey/Lieutenant), Jason Stanley (Boss Kean/Sergeant), Julia Torres (Mary), Brett Warnke (Society Red/Defense Lawyer), and Jarrod Zayas (Rabbit), Mike Jansen (Dragline).
Sets and lighting: Maruti Evans
Costumes: Orli Nativ
Sound: Ien DeNio
Fight Choreographer: Rick Sordelet

Stage Manager: Chris Knutson
59E59 Theaters at 59 East 59th Street, (between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets: $30. Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to
From 5/05/15; opening 5/07/15; closing 5/31/15.
Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 5/05/15
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