Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: DIVINE HORSEMEN (Primitive Grace Theater Ensemble at Access Theater)

by Paul Birchall on January 13, 2018

in Theater-New York

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NOT JUST HORSING AROUND

After watching Paul Calderon’s quite gripping tale of thugs and scammers trying to grift a deal whatever way they can, you’ll start to wonder, “Um, wouldn’t it be easier to just get a real job?” I mean, a scam is fun, I get it – I’m a theater critic and we’ve been scamming free tickets as far back as Aristophanes – but after a point, you just start to think, my goodness, all of this is just so much work.

Calderon’s drama takes place in a seedy social club in Spanish Harlem, managed by Iffy (David Zayas), a middle aged goon who has settled for being a nobody in a dead end community. At curtain, he’s playing dominoes with younger Benny (Robert Lee Leng), a former pro ballplayer, who bust out his leg and has since drifted into the world of thuggery. They both work for lower-mid-level thug Willie (Calderon), a lizard-like ghoul whose get-rich schemes are as creepy as they are contrived.

On Willie’s instructions, Iffy is storing a pack of dogs in the club’s backroom. They’ve been stolen off the streets and the thugs are offering the pooches back to their owners for the reward, and bashing in their heads (the dogs, that is) if they don’t pay. Again, working at a Starbucks seems easier to me, but clearly that lacks the Outlaw Panache the guys love.

However, when a mutual buddy kills himself in prison, Benny and his cronies plot to steal the dead guy’s priceless comic book collection. The only thing standing in their way of this perfect crime is the dead man’s mentally handicapped brother Raffi (David Deblinger), who wants to keep them himself.

Author Calderon’s staging possesses a thoughtfully constructed sense of unease that undeniably provokes urgency. Although the narrative often seems a little slight, the tension is beautifully rendered: We never know what these guys are capable of, and they fascinatingly come across as dumb-asses whose true talents are for violence and mayhem.

The drama’s dialogue is intimate and strangely organic, with patter that is full of profanity and brittle edge. There’s violence and insanity lurking in the undercurrent of every exchange. In almost every moment, even when the characters are ostensibly being pleasant to each other, there’s the feeling that one or more of them might just grab a baseball bat and smack the other person “just because.”

It’s the character work that ultimately carries the piece: The repartee between Zayas’s surprisingly subtle Iffy and Calderon’s brutish Willie is particularly compelling. Is that regret we see when Iffy has to perform especially horrendous activities? Although Leng’s adrenaline-steeped performance as young thug Benny leads to some issues with diction in his line readings, Calderon’s turn as Willie is also remarkably chilling – matter of fact pragmatism mixes with Reservoir Dogs-like sadism as he plots an act that is as evil as it is unavoidable.

photos by David Zayas Jr.

Divine Horsemen
Primitive Grace Theater Ensemble
Access Theater, 380 Broadway
Wed-Sat at 8
ends on January 27, 2018
for tickets, visit Divine Horsemen

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