Celebrity Row

“He’s a sociopath – but he’s a nice sociopath,” says Larry, speaking of his client Luis Felipe, the notoriously murderous leader of the Latin Kings, in the world premier of Itmar Moses’ “Celebrity Row,” now in production with Portland Center Stage. In fact, most of the sociopaths that populate Moses’ dark vision are nice. Mass murderers, sure, but nice? This characteristic is just one of many unsettling qualities the audience must contend with in this sharp, funny and troubling production.

The premise is fairly simple: What would happen if you placed four mass murderers (Ted Kazinski, Timothy McVeigh, World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and the aforementioned Luis Felipe) in the most secure maximum security prison in the United States and let them talk? However, the emotional debate that occurs in the roughly one and a half hour running time of “Celebrity Row” is less simple and, at times, downright messy as emotional debates often are.

Moses begins his play by placing us in the warm and capable hands of the smiling Maze Carroll, played with perfect Southern charm by Leslie Kalarchian. Carroll faces the audience with a kind and gentle smile and with wry charm proceeds to lay out the facts of The Alcatraz of the Rockies, otherwise known as ADX Florence, which is far from charming. Carroll knows so much about the prison because she is employed there as an educator who, through an anonymous letter and sheer determination, finds herself face to face with the cagey but nice Luis Felipe, played by Jesse J. Perez, and eventually the rest of the inmates.

Five actors adeptly play a number of roles as the lives of the characters roll out before us, in a hall of horrors sort of way, across the minimal and smoke-filled set that makes liberal use of metal grating. Throughout the first act, the inmates interrupt the narrative with biographic monologues that briefly detail their paths to violence. It is essentially a map of the pain and devastation that marked the 20 years that ended the last millennium.

The most engaging dialogue in the production happens between Carroll and Felipe as they work to gain a kind of trust and some modicum of understanding. It quickly becomes clear, however, that when the characters talk about the justifications for violence they are speaking in much broader terms. In fact, they are talking less about themselves and more about the United States.

There is a point in the play where you realize that PCS is not necessarily presenting you with an evening of entertainment. Instead, you find that what you are watching is the inner dialogue that occurs when kind leftists confront their darker, more desperate and bloody demons that may in fact share, at the root, the same ideology.

This happens best when it occurs subtly and subversively, such as when Carroll and Luis discuss his insistence on calling the Latin Kings a nation rather than a gang. It works less well, but works nonetheless, when the characters speak above metaphor, as when Carroll attempts to get at the reasons for Ramzi Yousef’s use of a truck bomb against the World Trade Center. Ariel Shafier plays Yousef with simmering quietness and he delivers his lines with a sureness that almost makes you feel sympathy for the man who killed hundreds.

This sympathy is also elicited from fine performances by Ebbe Roe Smith, who plays Ted Kazinski and Daniel Thomas May who plays Timothy McVeigh. This sympathy becomes even more troubling when understanding that much of the dialogue is based on things these real-life sociopaths actually wrote and said. For instance, Smith chillingly recites portions of the Unabomber’s manifesto with a calculating professorial tone.

When we reach the second act, narrative has all but been dismantled as we are treated to the broad swath of Carroll’s upbringing, detailing her path to liberal idealism.

Director Michael Coleman has done well moving the company through transitions, which could have been quite confusing, by allowing the stage to shift and change around the actors.

As the play builds, dialogue folds back on itself and we become aware of how people share the language of their ideologies with impunity. There is perhaps more in common between all of us than we might suspect.

In the end, we are left to think of our own ideologies and wonder what it is that allows a person to choose the path of violence and destruction.