A new one-man show has just opened at The Playroom Theater near Times Square that I think ought to be in the running for a New York Innovative Theatre Award, the Tonys for Off-Off Broadway.
Joe Assadourian’s “The Bullpen” is a fast-paced and hilarious look at people who are not exactly at their best. Set in a holding cell in a New York City courthouse, “The Bullpen” introduces the audience to a variety of characters who, for one reason or another, have business before the court.
The premise is simple enough. Assadourian has been arrested for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Since his myriad cellmates have nothing better to do, and since more than a couple of them seem to have been in court on more than one occasion, they put him on trial in the bullpen to test his case. In between, he makes his appearances in the state’s court, and seen through his eyes, I am not sure which court is mocking the other. Both seem far removed from the dignified courts we’ve seen on TV and in film.
The script starts off fast and doesn’t let up even at the end. Among the characters Assadourian introduces to the audience are a stoner, a transvestite, a sex-crazed nut, a guy who speaks English so quickly it sounds like Spanish, a jail-cell lawyer and more. Assadourian crisply and decisively moves from one character to the next without a single misstep in accent, body language or motivation. It’s solid writing with exceptional execution.
Assadourian is new to the theater, but he already has racked up some impressive accolades. The play’s website states that he “received the 1st Place PEN Prison Writing Award for his play, Heaven. He is also the recipient of a 2nd Place PEN Award for Joey Shakespear, co-written with Brandon Cochrane, featured at the New Work Now reading series at The Public Theatre and presented by The Collective Theatre in Miami. He is also the author of a full-length play, Deliberation, a modern recounting of the Armenian Holocaust. As an actor, Joe has appeared in Race by David Mamet, Tuff Love (including work by Sam Shepard and John Patrick Shanley) and Inside Out an original theatre piece co-written with the inmates at Otisville Correctional Institution. The Bullpen is based on his experiences at various institutions including Otisville.”
Yes, Assadourian did his research into what holding cells are like involuntarily. His new career on the outside stems from a program by director Richard Hoehler. Acting Out is a professional acting class and performance workshop for at-risk teens and adults currently in residence at the Fortune Society and Otisville Correctional Facility.
When I spoke with Assadourian the day before I saw his show, he explained that he had always done voices; that was his thing while incarcerated in Otisville and even before. Getting a few laughs made the time go easier. But when Hoehler’s class came up, he wasn’t interested. He said he never went to plays, “Why would I go see that when I could go to a movie?” The other guys who did go were very excited about it, and by the time of the third class, Assadourian gave in.
For the first class, they did standard scenes written by others, but for the second, they wanted to write their own. Assadourian’s few minutes were so good, Hoehler said, “I need an hour of that.” Joe says he wrote the first draft of “The Bullpen” in 14 hours he was so inspired.
Assadourian is a pretty laid-back person in the flesh, but when he talked about the class, the improv, the exercises, he sounded a little like a religious convert — he had found something that excited him, and he can’t contain himself all these months later. That’s what the arts are supposed to do. It doesn’t take much to get me excited about the theater, but Assadourian’s enthusiasm for the form is infectious.
His path to the theater is unique. He has only seen a few shows in his whole life. In fact, he had a play put on at The Public Theater in New York before he had been to a performance (he was still upstate at the time and couldn’t attend). Almost everyone else who is a playwright and actor was a spectator first.
Assadourian told me that he wants to do this for the rest of his life, and I think he has the talent and drive for a career in the theater in one way or another. Hell, he could do cartoon voiceovers right now, and Disney wouldn’t have to hire anybody else — he has that many distinct voices. But he’s not getting ahead of himself. There are no set plans for movies or TV or even another show. If those other things come along, great. Right now, he’s working on this one and enjoying the ride.
“The Bullpen” runs about an hour, and tickets are $20. The Playroom Theater is located at 151 W. 46th Street, 8th Floor in Manhattan. Assadourian performs “The Bullpen” every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the end of June.
For tickets or more information, visit “The Bullpen’s” website.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.