Photo courtesy of Ronnie Larsen Presents
Jeffrey Roach (front) plays Tim while Brandon Campbell (with beard) plays a prisoner named Justin. Jack Stein (back) plays multiple roles.
By AARON KRAUSE
Ronnie Larsen’s riveting play, The Prisoners, is a strong piece that works on several levels. For starters, it’s a dark erotic thriller that keeps you wondering how this fast-paced piece will end. And then, at the conclusion, it shocks you.
In addition, The Prisoners is a timely and timeless cautionary play. Specifically, it warns us against becoming too cozy with the wrong crowd. And the play is an eye-opening work. In particular, it reminds us how devastating unhealthy obsessions can be.
It is little wonder that The Prisoners, whose running time is roughly 80 minutes without an intermission, was nominated last year at the Carbonells in the categories of “Outstanding New Work, Play or Musical” and “Outstanding Direction.” Also, it’s hardly surprising that Larsen brought his play back to the Foundry for an encore run following a recent production. The current return engagement lasts for four more performances, ending on Jan. 7.
This professional Plays of Wilton production, which features powerfully real performances, sensitive direction by Larsen, and palpable tension, runs at the Foundry. This intimate performance space is in Wilton Manors
In The Prisoners, Tim is a 46-year-old man who has a “great job” working as a financial organizer in a law firm. Specifically, he oversees the billing and bookkeeping for more than 750 lawyers. But Tim also harbors an unhealthy obsession. Namely, he feels so sexually attracted to prisoners that it’s like an addiction. He cannot stop himself from finding ways to satisfy that addiction. Unfortunately, he learned that websites exist through which people can get in touch with prisoners. In particular, if you search the Internet with the phrase “Prison Pen Pals,” you will find sites such as writeraprisoner.com, meetaprisoner.com, and prisonpenpals.com.
Tim decides to explore such websites. As a result, he discovers prisoner profiles complete with their photos and brief biographies. It includes ways to get in touch with them.
“I’m talking to over 30 prisoners by now,” Tim says.
One of them is Justin. He allegedly “unlawfully sexually penetrated” a minor. Soon, Tim finds himself locked in a complex and dangerous relationship with Justin. It is as though Tim becomes a helpless prisoner to his obsession. And, as the action builds toward a breathtaking climax, we find ourselves fearing for Tim’s life…and the lives of those who live near him.
In addition to fast-paced dialogue that keeps tension high, The Prisoners includes dark humor. It is sure to elicit laughs and gaps, perhaps in the same breath. For instance, at one point, a therapist asks Tim what would happen if he told lawyers at the firm where he works about his relationships with prisoners.
“Are you kidding?” Tim responds and then turns sarcastic. “Hey, I send money to prisoners in jail and they tell me prison stories and I jack off and one wants to meet me and that’s not a problem, right? We exchange letters about my prison rape fantasies and I send (Justin) money every week, that’s totally cool, right? I’m not breaking any rules, right?”
In addition to dark humor, Larsen’s play contains nudity and sexual situations. Therefore, it’s wise not to bring anybody younger than 18 to the show.
The risqué material is not surprising considering that Larsen is the playwright. You may know him for his sex-themed pieces such as Cocksucker: A Love Story, Making Porn, and The Penis Talk Show. However, lately, Larsen has produced and written more wholesome shows with substance intended for universal audiences. You might say that The Prisoners occupies a middle ground between Larsen’s sex-themed works and those that he intends for more universal audiences.
If Larsen writes with familiarity in The Prisoners, it is because the world of the play is not foreign to him.
“My friend has been living this for 13 years,” Larsen told writer J.W. Arnold. “There are these prison dating sites. You can click on (the prisoners’) profiles and see what they did. It started as a lark and it was a little bit sexual, but nothing came of it. He actually went to the prison and met the guy, who was very hot but had a swastika tattooed on his chest, covered up by a big black square.”
The Prisoners does not mark the first time that Larsen has written about the world of the incarcerated. For example, Larsen’s piece, An Evening with John Wayne Gacy, Jr. focuses on the Illinois serial killer who performed at children’s parties as a clown. In addition, Larsen produced Slammer Girlz, a riff on campy ‘60s and ‘70s women’s prison films.
Larsen, a renowned writer whose work has been produced nationally and internationally, is also no stranger to success. Indeed, he has won awards and admiration from diverse audiences. That’s not surprising because his work features depth, humor, and cleverness.
While the writing in The Prisoners is strong, the production elements in the current mounting of the play also shine. For instance, the three actors who comprise the cast are convincing in their portrayals.
As Justin, Brandon Campbell appears behind authentic-looking prison bars for most of the play. He leans forward and positions his arms outside the bars, appearing as though he is itching to escape. Campbell’s dark wide eyes and smile lend both a disarming charm and creepiness to his performance. Meanwhile, Campbell’s voice betrays a chilling combination of charm, menace, and glee. When necessary, Campbell raises his voice to the level of a menacing, threatening shout.
Contrastingly, Jeffrey Roach’s Tim is somewhat of a nebbish. More specifically, Roach portrays an individual who is affable but also easily flustered by people who enjoy teasing and tormenting others, such as Justin.
Jack Stein also performs naturally in multiple roles, including as a matter-of-fact prison guard, a well-meaning friend to Tim, and a seemingly friendly prisoner named Paul.
Behind the scenes, set designer Melqui Dominguez has created three sets of dark prison bars that are easily movable. For instance, for one scene, the bars are combined to form a cage that boxes in Justin. Behind the sets of prison bars, a darkly colored wall, together with dim lighting by Panos Mitos, create just the right mood for this dark play.
True, The Prisoners entertains with its unpredictability and fast paced action. But the play also shines a necessary light on how people with mental illness and unhealthy obsessions often need help…before it is too late.
The Prisoners runs for four more performances at The Foundry, 2306 Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. While the final performance is sold out, tickets remain for the 8 p.m. performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. For tickets, go to Buy Tickets – The Prisoners – The Foundry, Multiple dates and times (tickettailor.com). For more information, go to www.ronnielarsen.com.