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‘Fish Men’ at Goodman: When chess hustlers bait their hooks, slippery truth snaps at the line

Submitted by on Apr 17, 2012 – 4:13 pm

Review: “Fish Men” by Cándido Tirado, produced by Teatro Vista with Goodman Theatre, through May 6. ***

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Classical Greek themes like hubris and vengeance may not seem the stuff of a play that’s essentially a sweet, feel-good night at the theater. But such is the agreeable concoction of Cándido Tirado’s serio-comedy “Fish Men,” a story about chess hustlers and souls struggling against their lot as fate’s pawns.

This engagingly couched world premiere production – designer Collette Pollard has created a cozy hedged corner of downtown New York City’s Washington Square Park – is a joint enterprise by Goodman Theatre and the Latino company Teatro Vista, where Cándido Tirado is resident playwright. Tirado is a chess master, and his expertise tells both technically and metaphorically as his motley chess buffs circle, analyze, spar and pounce.

Like any well-made play fashioned around a highly specialized discipline – David Ashburn’s “Proof” comes to mind – “Fish Men” requires no topical sophistication by the audience. Its magnetism lies in its situations, language and intensity; in its human resonance.

The chess hustle isn’t exactly a con, only sort of. Ace players set up their games in public spaces and try to lure unsuspecting marks, known as “fish.” Games are played with a little cash on the line, and maybe the hustler doesn’t play so well at first. As the ante increases, the hustler’s game sharpens with it. Then there are the side bets: The hustler’s pals induce the fish to bet with them as well as the whiz across the board. And fish tend to be gambling addicts, which means they keep playing when they’re on a roll or keep going to recoup their losses. The guys they’re up against know all the angles. They’re masters of gambling psychology as well as chess.

Into just such a pool of smiling sharks wanders Rey Reyes (played with inviting vulnerability by Raúl Castillo), a well-dressed young man clutching a briefcase, looking for someone. He’s carrying cash to repay a debt. His girlfriend is constantly tracking him by cell phone: Where is he, is he playing chess – for money? It’s been a slow day for the hustlers, three aggressive entrepreneurs whose numbers are rounded off by a fourth who doesn’t play for money and an old man who sits on a sunny bench sleeping fitfully. One sniff of Reyes and the sharks begin circling.

As predators go, the serious threesome is an appealing lot. They’re longtime partners in, well, chess – a family, and they routinely abuse each other in that spirit. Two of them are black. PeeWee (the irresistibly antic and impetuous Kenn E. Head) learned to play chess in prison. Cultural correctness is not his strength. To PeeWee, a Russian is anyone who lives in that general part of the world. When this new fish Reyes says he’s from Guatemala, that registers with PeeWee as Mexican.

In brute and hilarious contrast  stands Belarus native John — just another Russian to PeeWee — whose grip on English is secured by the efficiency of four-letter words. When John (blustering, guttural Mike Cherry) turns the ethnic tables, telling PeeWee that African or Haitian or Jamaican, a black is a black is a black, the incredulous African American blurts: “Do I look like a Jamaican?”

The second black guy is the super-intelligent, former child whiz kid and college dropout Cash, invested with imposing physical presence and authority by Cedric Mays. Cash is the group’s real gunslinger, a fast and deadly chess master.

If these guys can see their latest fish coming from a mile away, we surmise with the same clarity where all this is heading. More or less. The hustlers’ fish Reyes is one angry young man. He has known unspeakable suffering, something he shares to a degree with chess wizard Cash and shares absolutely with that old man dozing in the sun, an erstwhile chess sensation who knows more about the game – and the value of life – than all these hustlers and their fish combined. Howard Witt brings luminous grace to this gentle, faltering figure called Adam, but also known as Ninety-two. And when competitive intensity boils over into some rough stuff, it is Witt’s generous-spirited Adam who restores calm to this little corner of Washington Square Park.

In these five characters, Tirado has both the essence and substance of a durable play. But “Fish Men” suffers from Tirado’s generalized sketching of three other characters: a Cherokee chess player (Ricardo Gutierrez) who eschews games for money, a grasping landlord (Daniel Cantor) and a neighborhood doctor (Gordon Chow). Are all undeveloped and probably expendable. The Cherokee is indignant over the white man’s usurpation of North America, the landlord is shown to be no better than the chess predators and the doctor (a proctologist)…never mind.

Still, for all its best qualities, “Fish Men” is a refreshing evening of theater. Director Edward Torres lends the show a human pace. It is by turns expansive, amusing, grinding. The chess matches – sometimes the pieces – fly. In the end, the grind and the hustle generate light and affirmation.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Rey Reyes (Raúl Castillo, right) decides to play chess whiz Cash (Cedric Mays, center) and John (Mike Cherry) awaits the outcome. Descending: The hustlers (from left, played by Mike Cherry, Cedric Mays and Kenn E. Head) convene to assess their new fish (Raúl Castillo, background). Rey Reyes (Raúl Castillo, right) tries his luck with the Cherokee Jerome (Ricardo Gutierrez) while John (Mike Cherry, left) and Cash (Cedric Mays) wait for a money game. Old-time and ex-chess master Adam (Howard Witt) watches the hustle from a warm bench. (Production photos by Dean LaPrairie) Playwright Cándido Tirado.

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