The backstory of the new show starring and co-written by Sherie Rene Scott is a compelling one. Several years ago, the Broadway actress (Aida, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and writer-director Dick Scanlan spent several weeks at a medium-security prison working with inmates on a theatrical project. Now they’ve turned that experience into Whorl Inside a Loop, receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre. Unfortunately, and more than a little ironically, the prisoners get short shrift in this piece, which muddles its serious themes in self-conscious, artificial theatricality.
The playwrights — whose previous collaboration, Everyday Rapture, also based on Scott’s real-life story, opened at the same theater before landing on Broadway — admirably haven’t idealized the character based on and played by Scott, here known only as “The Volunteer.” But despite their presenting her as a figure whose less-than-noble actions are revealed late in the game, there’s still an undeniable air of self-absorption on display.
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Upping the dramatic stakes by placing the action in a maximum security prison where all the participating inmates are convicted murderers, the play begins with the Volunteer, the star of a fictitious hit Broadway show called Conquistadors the Musical, traversing a variety of security obstacles —which include having her cellphone confiscated, getting scanned by a metal detector wand and being fingerprinted — before being allowed to see the men. (The oblique title, incidentally, refers to a rare fingerprint pattern.)
She’s then seen interacting with a half-dozen inmates, all African-American, in a series of workshops dubbed “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative,” in which the men are encouraged to share their true-life stories. The men are initially reluctant to be open, until they’re reassured by the made-up slogan that “What happens in this room in prison stays in this room in prison”…or “W.H.I.T.R.I.P.S.I.T.R.I.P.” for short.
With much humor derived from the juxtaposition between the men and the blonde Volunteer, described by another character as “the whitest person at your own Whitey McWhite party,” the play co-directed by Scanlan and Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) alternates between scenes of the inmates relating their harrowing tales and others involving their instructor’s personal life.
And here’s where the trouble begins: the male performers playing the inmates also enact a wide variety of other roles, including the Volunteer’s husband, her four-year-old son, her sex-obsessed gay hair stylist (who prefers to be called a “hair therapist”), a Broadway producer, a female warden, a nun, and even, in one of the more bizarre subplots apparently based on reality, Hillary Clinton.
With both the writing and acting often lurching into caricature, the play unfortunately trivializes its important subject matter, inevitably putting the focus more on Scott’s self-involved character than the inmates. When they do get brief opportunities to tell their stories the evening comes to life, not surprisingly since they’re taken from the actual accounts; five of the real-life prisoners are credited with “additional material.” But for every wrenching monologue, there’s a cheap running gag, such as the one involving a corrections officer who can’t bring himself to say the word “bra.”
As always, Scott is an appealing performer and a natural comedienne, and the actors (Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr.), at least when playing the prisoners, are powerfully effective. It’s a shame, then, that Whorl Inside a Loop too often seems to be spinning its own wheels.
Cast: Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Sherie Rene Scott, Daniel J. Watts, Donald Webber Jr.
Playwrights: Dick Scanlan, Sherie Rene Scott
Directors: Michael Mayer, Dick Scanlan
Set designers; Christine Jones, Brett Banakis
Costume designer: ESosa
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Presented by Second Stage Theatre