OTB meets the INS at Gloucester Stage
HOT SHIT: Somebody’s in it, and we’re not talking jockeys.
Playwright Mike Batistick stirs the melting pot in Ponies, a brief, Mametesque dark comedy that’s getting its New England premiere at Gloucester Stage (through July 15). The setting is a seedy Lower Manhattan off-track-betting establishment in the middle of a workday afternoon. There a Croatian immigrant flaunting a US passport he obtained by marrying a fat American, a Nigerian exile who has misplaced his taxicab, and a Venezuelan cook without a green card study the racing form, develop wacky betting schemes, and needle one another. At least, energetically hustling Balkans native Drazen and the illegal South American “Wallace” do, edgily trading ethnic slurs like baseball cards. Nigerian Ken, the only survivor of a family persecuted in dictatorial times fueled by Shell Oil, is painfully sincere — though, if desperation dictates, he’s ready to separate you from your tongue, and he’ll add that he did worse things in his West African homeland. Behind the action — and a magazine — is the bored cashier who accepts the wagers and dispenses the winnings.
This 75-minute work had its premiere at the 2003 New York International Fringe Festival and has since been seen in London and at New York’s Studio Dante, where it was produced by The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli and starred the HBO series’s John Ventimiglia. It shares with American Buffalo an amorphous plot that involves betrayal and a somewhat hapless yen for the cash that constitutes the American Dream. But the play trades in indigenous punks for a trio of non-natives trying to sew themselves into the nation’s post-9/11 tapestry. (Drazen proudly consults a Zagat guide, proclaiming that’s what white Americans do.) The unemployed Croatian is an ebullient con artist (though genuinely sorry about that) who introduces his apprehensive friend Ken to the American-dream shortcut of betting on the ponies. Ken has gone a more legit route, getting a work visa and financing a taxi that has mysteriously disappeared — and that he wishes to report missing, despite his anxiety about NYPD Blue. The quiet Wallace, who has grown to loathe his Anglo-sounding pseudonym, is the most intense peruser of the racing form, with a reverence for jockeys that stems from his belief that they plunge themselves into hot horse shit to keep their weight down.
Batistick has an excellent ear, and the dialogue of Ponies fits like a tight saddle: even if you miss some of the slur-strewn conversation from speedy Robert Pemberton as Drazen, what you do get, full of references to banana boats and Bosnian Muslims, extends a strange bonhomie across a bedrock of mistrust. The play is notable for its depiction of the anxiety of immigrant life, whether one is legal or not, and the sharpness of its exchange, with the cocky Drazen and the sly Wallace trading insults that are often witty as well as kneejerk. But when Wallace calls Drazen a car thief, a light bulb goes off in cab-napped Ken’s head, and the situation intensifies.
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