Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company and Actors’ Theatre of Washington

At the Warehouse Theater 2nd Stage

to March 20

The Early Miracle

By Lew Holton

Directed by Rachel Gardner Bridges

At the Flashpoint gallery to March 21

Prisoners sitting. Blackout. Prisoners smoking. Blackout. Prisoners exercising. Blackout. Prisoners screwing. Blackout. Prisoners strangling.

That’s the first 40 seconds or so of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch as envisioned by directors Lee Mikeska Gardner and Matty Griffiths, and if you allow for the words the playwright gives his characters thereafter, it’s reasonably descriptive of the 87 minutes that follow.

Penned in 1942, Deathwatch was the first of Genet’s dramatic works, entirely in character with a life that was given over to provoking and outraging. A thief and male prostitute in his youth, and a willfully outré artiste thereafter, he centered his plays and novels on society’s outcasts, celebrating their repudiation of conventional morality, finding poignance in the cycle of brutality, humiliation, and self-destruction they endure.

It was his second play, The Maids, that brought Genet notoriety. Based on court transcripts of a sensational French murder trial, it pictured its backbiting title characters and their imperious mistress playacting in a variety of snippy, ultimately fatal domination games. The fiercely class-conscious, avant-garde drama caused a scandal when first produced, and it would have caused an even bigger one if the director had followed the author’s wishes and cast men in all the roles, as a Washington Shakespeare Company production did in 2002.

Deathwatch deals with the same impulses but with less distance. The author wrote the play while in prison, and he locates the action there, picturing three cellmates who vie for supremacy in tight confines. They’re not into playacting particularly, though there’s a certain amount of role-playing going on. Green Eyes (Peter Klaus) is the alpha male in the group: fierce, strong, handsome, and quick to anger. It’s he who breaks up the fights between effeminate Maurice (Jeffrey Johnson) and calculating George (Christopher Henley), and it’s he who metes out approval, privileges, and even sexual satisfaction in the cell. But Green Eyes also needs something from his cellmates. He’s illiterate—which means he’s cut off from the solace his girlfriend tries to offer him in her letters. George can stumble through a bit of writing, and he uses that ability to outflank Maurice, whose only way of ingratiating himself is to offer his body as physical relief.

Their power games are straightforward enough, with Green Eyes, who’s a murderer, increasingly distracted by the imminence of his execution and increasingly impatient with the petty criminals he’s cooped up with. That there’s a still more powerful figure outside the cell—a black convict named Snowball—not to mention a guard (John Francis Bauer) circling the action, extends the story outward without making it any less claustrophobic—a fact directors Gardner and Griffiths emphasize in their staging.

They’ve mounted the production, a joint effort by the Actors Theater of Washington and the Washington Shakespeare Company, at the Warehouse Theater 2nd Stage, a raw new space adjacent to the increasingly prettified 7th Street stage that Gala Theatre and other troupes have been occupying for several seasons. The new auditorium is a small room made smaller in this instance by a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall scrim that slices through its center to set off the acting area. Ordinarily, I’d be skeptical of a physical barrier between actors and audience, but in confines this tight, with nudity, sex, and considerable brutality in the offing, it provides a welcome sense of separation. When Klaus’ pack leader flies into rages, hurling himself around the cell and bashing into walls, patrons in the front row would likely be fleeing for cover if the scrim’s taut membrane weren’t giving them the illusion of protection. No doubt it also provides the actors with an illusion of privacy when they’re engaged in pants-around-ankles simulated screwing.

Henley and Johnson do some nifty variations on the snarling, venomous characters they played in The Maids, circling each other warily, spitting acid, and setting up a clash that will prove mortal for one of them. They also do an effective job of buttressing Klaus’ pumped-up but callow Green Eyes, who would seem too vulnerable to be inspiring all their hero-worship if they weren’t making it so persuasive. Bauer’s glowering guard is effectively ominous only until he opens his mouth, but happily, the character doesn’t have much to say.

Deathwatch isn’t as fully formed dramatically as The Maids; nor is its fragmented dialogue as consciously comic. Still, there’s a power to the youthful Genet’s simple declarations (“It’s by its sweetness that you recognize catastrophe”) and a ferocity to his plotting that’s inescapable. The design work is clever and the staging sharply stylized, with slo-mo punches and remarkably varied confrontations, especially given the repetitive nature of the script. If the show wears out its welcome a bit before its 88 minutes are up, it is still an intriguing look at a seminal, occasionally poetic piece of avant-garde agitprop, and a suitable introduction to a new downtown performance space.

A knock at the door introduces audiences to another new space, just a few blocks away. It’s the actors, seeking entrance to the Flashpoint gallery’s back room, where the audience is already seated, and if no one got up to answer, the Charter Theatre’s An Early Miracle might take quite a while to get under way.

Actually, it takes a while to get under way anyway, because playwright Lew Holton is enamored of monologues; he doesn’t get his characters involved in actual conversation until well after he’s set his comic plot in motion. His story involves a tornado that sweeps through a trailer park, depositing a religious relic—a statue of Mary—atop the only trailer left intact. As the media horde descends and pilgrims start showing up, Holton introduces us to the residents of the trailer (a strip-club dancer and her married beau), their neighbors (a dimwitted couple who’ve lost their beloved pit bulls), and various hangers-on, including preachers, parents, TV reporters, a beautician, an Asian strip-club operator, and a mysterious Frenchman who holds the key to the mystery of the statue.

Chris Stezin, Ray Ficca, and Hope Lambert play all these folks, and they’re decent comic chameleons, with Lambert and Ficca splitting the female characters between them, and Stezin’s sex-crazed, dog-crazed, money-crazed, and just plain crazed men sniffing ’round them. The script’s giddy stereotyping, rural buffoonery, and entire-town-on-stage-at-once aesthetic seem designed to mimic the comic work of comedians Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, but The Early Miracle never quite turns into A Tuna Tornado. Rachel Gardner Bridges orchestrates some clever business (one raincoat-clad TV newswoman can’t seem to start a stand-up without prompting a drizzle), and Kerrie Brown’s wigs are a show in themselves. But though the actors manage to make a few of the characters emotionally credible, they were pushing so hard at the sparsely attended matinee I caught that they weren’t garnering many laughs. CP