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A CurtainUp Review
Perhaps because of these humiliating early experiences, I never became a great chess player. But that never stopped me from having an interest in the game. Nor did it prevent me from appreciating Cándido Tirado's Fish Men, making its New York premiere at INTAR and directed by Lou Moreno.
Although the play was first produced at Chicago's Goodman Theater, the playwright was raised in the Bronx. Fish Men is set in Washington Square Park, where a group of chess hustlers congregate around the chess tables.
Cash (Shawn Randall) is African American, a former PhD candidate who wants to win a few hundred bucks so he can buy his son a new bike. John (Gardiner Comfort) is a Belorussian immigrant, who's also addicted to gambling and petty crime. These are the fish men, waiting to hook their prey.
Jerome (David Anzuelo) is part Cherokee, and unlike the other two, plays chess purely for the pleasure of the game. Adam, also known as "Ninety-Two," (Ed Setrakian) is a Holocaust survivor who got his nickname because he was a master of the queen and two pawns end games: the queen is worth nine points and each pawn one.
The men engage in friendly rivalry. Jerome is generally good-natured except when the subject of Native Americans comes up. They like to tease John about the time he was arrested for breaking into a house because he got so involved in reading a chess book that he forgot where he was until the police arrived.
Rey (Jos3 Joaquin Perez) changes the tone. He's a Guatemalan-born computer programmer whose Uncle Stuart lost a good deal of money to the hustlers the day before. Although he says he's come to get back the money, it turns out he's really in the park for revenge.
Reyes seeks retribution not only for what the men have done to his uncle but for his entire family, massacred during a disturbance back home — as well as all the sins of the world, which sit uneasily on his shoulders.
This is a play built on these characters. There's lots of dialogue; infact, about a half hour too much. Until the end, there's very little action, and when that action comes it can only be understood as arising organically from the personalities of those involved. This demands excellent actors who understand subtext and know how to pace themselves to reveal just enough and when necessary.
Such skills are beyond most of the men in this cast. Randall seems miscast as Cash; in fact, his interpretation of the role makes it almost impossible to believe Cash ever went to college, let alone that he was a Phd candidate.
Anzuelo never makes it clear why Jerome is in the play at all. Setrakian seems to ramble through the play until he comes into his own at the very end. And Perez enters so wound up that he has no place to go except into the realm of melodrama.
The one exception is Comfort. Heo provides not only believability but also lots of humor.
Set designer Raul Abrego has given the play a really nice facsimile of chess tables in a new York City park. And Moreno has staged the show to take full advantage of the intimacy of the small theater, with the audience sitting on either side of the stage.
But Tirado has written a play in which the characters are all supposed to learn something about life and about each other. They have to grow. In this production they either remain static or change in ways that are supported by the text, but not the acting.
Nevertheless, Fish Men is often compelling. And the actors, who are clearly heavily invested in this production, manage to pull it together for an ending that is quite moving. As chess taught me early in life, sometimes getting a break is not enough. It's hard work and determination that pull you through.
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Fish Men by Cándido Tirado
Directed By Lou Moreno
Cast: Shawn Randall (Cash); Gardiner Comfort (John); David Anzuelo (Jerome); Ed Setrakian (Ninety-Two); José Joaquin Pérez (Rey)
Scenic Design: Raul Abrego
Lighting Design: Christopher J. Cancel
Costume Design: Meghan E. Healey
ñSound Design: Jesse Mandapat
Production Stage Manager: Fran Acuña-Almiron
Assistant Stage Manage: Alejandra Madonado-Morales
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
INTAR, 500 West 52 Street, 4th Floor, www.intartheatre.org
From 2/10/17; opening 2/21/17; closing 3/18/17
Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm
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