By Ryan Leeds
Near the end of playwright Cándido Tirado’s well-crafted play Fish Men, one of his characters looks offstage, reflecting on the events that have just occurred. “People are stories,” says Ninety-Two. (Ed Setrakian) “You see them walking down the street, but you’d never know what events have affected their lives.” Indeed, every person in this rich character study is woven together by a painful tapestry of his or her individual pasts, but the results make for a thoughtful and compelling night of theater.
Fish Men, produced by the INTAR Theatre, takes place in New York’s Washington Square park where Cash (Shawn Randall), an over-confident chess hustler is working the cemented outdoor chess boards with John (Gardiner Comfort), his religious, but not terribly bright Russian sidekick. The pair hold court while Jerome (David Anzuelo), an outspoken Native American and passive chess player, and “Ninety-Two” (whose real name we later learn is Adam Kirchbaum) observe the pair and offer disapproving remarks on the way they take advantage of less experienced players.
Cash isn’t particularly fond of being labeled a hustler, preferring instead to don the moniker “Chess professor.” Cash claims “it’s easier to get a doctorate than it is to become a chess grandmaster” and only “plays for money to make things interesting.” He is certainly not wrong on that account. The events become interesting and at times, grave, when a seemingly nerdy player, Rey (Jose Joaquin Perez) walks into their path and plays the game. Once a hustler himself, Rey is there to exact revenge on the pair. A day earlier, Cash and John took his Uncle Bernie for a ride and Rey is hell-bent on getting even.
The burden of revenge is heavy and carried throughout the drama. As layers are peeled, we are made aware of vulnerabilities and resentments that lie under the surface of Tirado’s men.
Rey and Ninety-Two find common ground in being survivors of genocide. For Ninety-Two, it was the Holocaust. Rey, on the other hand, is a survivor of the “forgotten” Guatemalan civil war, which saw the murder of thousands of Mayan people at the hands of government officials. The survivor’s club, as Ninety-Two points out is “Not the best club to be a member of. No application process. Someone else must make you a member against your will.” Still, the elder gentleman has discovered coping mechanisms. The younger Rey is still blood red with anger. Jerome is also a survivor. As a Native American, he laments our country’s history of 18 million exterminations of his ancestors and the differences that divide us.
Tirado could easily have turned this into another drama that assuages the guilt of liberal America by teaching and preaching to the choir, but he wisely masks it with natural and often funny dialogue. There is also intensity, particularly in Act II, which moves the story forward like a slick cat and mouse game.
Director Lou Moreno has given his actors plenty of leeway to explore their characters, but still keeps the stakes high and the action laser focused. Raul Abrego’s set, an intimate park re-creation, works perfectly in the cozy theater, as does lighting designer Christopher Cancel-Pomales effective saturations.
At times, the delivery of dialogue could be tighter and occasionally, some lines are difficult to hear. It’s safe to assume however that this accomplished cast will settle into the play as the run progresses. And the title? I must confess that I recoiled when I first read it. Given the prevalent references throughout, however, it makes perfect sense. Tirado’s work, which premiered at Chicago’s Goodman Theater (in collaboration with Teatro Vista), makes a most welcome and moving splash Off-Broadway.
500 W. 52nd Street, 4th floor
Through March 18
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.