In The Bullpen, Joseph Assadourian’s wickedly facetious 18-character play, the audience is dropped into the lion’s den of the American prison system and the ass-backwards legal procedures that puppeteer it. Within 65 minutes, Assadourian, with the help of director Richard Hoehler, zeroes in on the epicenter of incarceration with stanch sensitivity and empathy without a tinge of melodrama. Switching characters at ballistic rapid-fire inertia, the courtroom black comedy finds its cement center with the rollicking Assadourian, who plays the entire ensemble of high-spirited denizens like a speed-balling rollercoaster ride; his energy alone brings to mind a blue collar Jefferson Mays.
The solo performance follows the trials and tribulations of a man (Joseph Assadourian) who is arrested, arraigned and put on trial for attempted murder, a crime he claims he did not commit. He is judged and brought to justice by two assembled parties of jurisprudence that will test his integrity and his spirit. Though amalgamated within the institutionalized penal system, they cannot be more disjoined branches of government: one is a jury of the American people in an actual courtroom and the other, a hodgepodge of low-level jailbirds, hardened criminals and two-faced informants. What seems intended to be setup as a kill-or-be-killed scenario turns into an unlikely fraternity of inmates as they come to a consensus of the major question: Is Joseph as innocent as he lets on?
The Bullpen was conceived, written and performed at the Otisville Correctional Institution in upstate New York, where it evolved from an 8-minute monologue sketch of various impersonations of eccentrics Assadourian met during his internment. Assadourian was released from prison in 2013 after serving 12 years of a 25-year sentence for attempted murder. Just two years prior to his release, he unenthusiastically joined forces with two-dozen inmates at a theater workshop within the facility, where he met actor/director Richard Hoehler, who encouraged Assadourian to foster his talent, which came without any formal training or theatrical experience. In fact, as of the opening of The Bullpen, Assadourian has only ever seen two shows on Broadway: The City Of Conversation with five-time Tony Award nominee Jan Maxwell (whom he remarks to be his favorite stage actress), and All The Way with recent Tony winner Bryan Cranston.
Originally titled “Me The People,” Assadourian performed the play at a New York City residence for formerly incarcerated men and women, the Fortune Academy—known as The Castle—before the play made its premiere Off Off Broadway at the Cornelia Street Café. Now making its Off-Broadway debut at The Playroom Theater, Assadourian seems to have honed the soul of even his most egregious penitentiary stereotype, creating fully realized human beings throughout. For example, Kitty, the resident flamboyant horse-walking gay is treated with poise and warmth; while the powers that reside over the case are treated with meticulous insight and ethos. Perhaps the most thought-provoking soul in his penny arcade of characters is the nuanced, seemingly levelheaded Roscoe, an intimate who argues Joseph’s defense. Charming and charismatic, the sharp troublemaker keeps the audience at the edge of their seat with puzzling curiosity.
This unique yarn feels like an intimate cabaret mash-up of 12 Angry Men and Orange Is The New Black for the Law and Order generation, but with surprising entail and wit. FYI, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Bullpen found life on the road after its midtown residency is over. You read it here first. But, let’s pretend you didn’t. I ain’t no rat.
The Playroom Theater
151 West 46th Street (between Broadway and 6th Avenue)
Through August 30.
Marcus Scott, an MFA graduate of NYU Tisch, is a playwright, musical theater writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Elle, Out, Essence, Uptown, Trace, Giant, Hello Beautiful and Edge Media Network.