reviewed by Joseph Conway
Hell’s Kitchen, 1979. A time of vice, corruption, betrayal, and death in one of New York’s most dangerous neighborhoods. A Sicilian Mafioso leers at an Irish folk singer over the rim of his glass of fine Italian wine. “Vino” he calls it, and he insists his friends do the same. His weathered features only hint at the long life of malice and greed that precedes him. Meanwhile, a mother grieves. She still speaks with her daughter in a lonely cemetery. A sister takes another swig of whiskey, drowning the pain and memories. Throughout it all, one man just wants to find a way out, to a little place called home.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Well, much like Hell’s Kitchen in days of yore, “The Watchtower” by Steve Silver is also a hotbed of betrayal, only this time it’s the audience that plays the hapless victim. Strong characters and interesting plot devices abound in the play, but absolutely none of them are used to any effect. I kid you not when I say the entirety of the show is spent reminiscing about things that don’t actually happen on stage. The full hour and a half was literally just a set of characters speaking fondly about memories of days gone by. I thought I was going to see a crime drama, yet the only crime here is that so much good talent was wasted in a show where nothing ever happens.
Nothing. Actually. Happens.
Not a thing! It’s genuinely tragic that such an interesting setting and potentially vibrant characters are wasted on a plot that comes from nowhere, goes nowhere, and ends with no real closure or even a hint of morality. The story winds up with one characters poignant quote of “You can’t go home again” and ends with the main character/villain just… Going home again. Going home and leading a happy life that a man of his misdeeds certainly does not deserve. The only good thing I could say about the ending is that it meant the show was over.
There is certainly potential in this play, however. The well-chosen cast provides excellent visual storytelling. Carmine Castelucci is the spitting image of a powerful and dangerous crime boss. In fact, Ken Coughlin’s spot on interpretation of the character was probably the highlight of the show. And the initial racial tensions between Italian and Irish mobsters hinted at a much grander story that sadly never came to fruition onstage. Speaking of Irish mobsters, Steve Silver provides the perfect look of a criminal goon as Tommy O’Day. Of course, it would be rather difficult for him not to fit the part, considering he wrote it.
Caroline M Smith steps into the scene as Eileen O’Day, wife of Tommy and mother of the late Meghan O’Day. Her character is multi-layered, tough, is very well acted, and has great potential that is ultimately handicapped by shoddy writing. Eileen is a strong, resilient woman who has been through a lot and has still managed to stand her ground. Her one real weakness is that she still feels the need to visit her daughters grave and converse with her quite frequently. Yet in the end, she still bows down to the will of her husband and up and leaves the country, and her daughters gravesite, in the dust. It just makes no sense for the character that has been established.
Other decisions made throughout the play make little sense as well. Why is there an Irish ukulele player? Wouldn’t a fiddle have been more appropriate to show Carmine the Irish culture? Why was Eileen forced to move furniture around in the middle of her monologue? What was the point of bringing out a quilt and pillows to lie on the floor with in the last scene? Did the actors just need to look like they were doing more than they actually were? Why, in the entire course of the play, did nothing actually happen on the stage? Who honestly thought this was a good idea?
The Watchtower is all about people reminiscing about things that we never actually see happen. In the end, I certainly wont be reminiscing about this show, and I kind of wish it never happened.
Joseph Conway is a classically trained actor and celebrated article writer and critic, quoted often and well for his reviews of operas.