“On the Head of a Pin” at 59E59 Theaters (Closed March 10, 2013)

February 26, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written and Directed by Frank Winters
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

When people want to express the total pointlessness of something, they sometimes say that thing is as silly as “arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.” The familiar phrase is also a rather cynical description of what might be considered a tedious concern with irrelevant details. For Caliban (a civilian version of Taliban perhaps), the civilian contractor overseeing operations at Fathoum Prison in Iraq, it is pointless to tell the truth. Worrying whether prisoners are tortured during interrogation is a tedious concern with irrelevant details: what matters to Caliban’s onsite manager Kathleen Crane (Jen Tullock) is that her untrained and unprepared interrogators get what she needs to secure convictions. Breaking down Sarah Kennedy (Emily Fleischer) who wants to blow the whistle on what goes on at Fathoum is also an irrelevant detail even if it results in Sarah committing suicide.

And when those who would do all they can to “break” those who would, through their heroic actions, prove that (in fact) “some things are worth saving,” they might charge that those heroes are simply arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Those who can do whatever they want to do (governments, for example) need to dismiss as irrelevant anything that is done to save something worth saving, anything that is done to protect something worth protecting. Frank Winters’ engaging and important “On the Head of a Pin,” currently running at 59E59 Theater B, serves up characters and conflicts that drive a detailed and driving plot which moves from past (2004, a few miles south of Baghdad Iraq) to present (2007, New York City) in carefully crafted counterpoint.

Frank Winters’ script makes it clear that what is worth saving is honesty, integrity, and moral responsibility. Freedom of the press is worth protecting in the United States and in other democracies. Lily Strauss (Sofia Lauwers) wants her reporting job back at The New York Guardian and comes to acting editor Jon Lowe (James Ortiz) with a story that will save the paper from financial ruin. Her story is that of the torture of prisoners at Fathoum Prison. The problem is: Lily cannot reveal her source and the last time she convinced The Guardian to print one of her disclosures cost her not only her job but her paper’s reputation and subscriber base.

The remarkable story of Lily’s return, her collaboration with Henry Sullivan (Will Gallacher), Gwen Post (Devin Dunne Cannon), and Russell Clark (Marcus Callender), and her conflicted decision to print the story after the source is confirmed is captivating and each member of this brilliant cast helps to bring Mr. Winters’ tale to a successful climax and conclusion. Not even the likes of the government’s Allison Howe (Jennifer Loring) can dissuade Lily and her team to break. Lily’s relationship with Gwen is the only event that almost dissuades her. Actors Sofia Lauwers and Devin Dunne Cannon portray the loving relationship between Lily and Gwen with sensitivity and passion. Their story further heightens the play’s exploration into the meaning of commitment and cause.

Set designer James Ortiz makes full use of the playing area in 59E59 Theater B. There is an office cubicle downstage left that is difficult to light; however, this area is only used for transitions off and on the stage. Ortiz’s well-designed set allows director Frank Winters to move his actors from one scene to another seamlessly. Zach Pizza’s sparse but effective lighting further enhances the transition from one set location to another and from present to past. And Amanda Kullman’s costume design is pefect.

Strangemen & Company’s “On the Head of a Pin” is an impressive drama and stands a good chance at having a future. There needs to be some judicious paring in length but clearly Frank Winters is up to that task. This is a play to place on your “must see” list.