Review: “Heads” at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row

Nickolaus Hines

The lights dimmed briefly before the lights on stage left shot back on. Two men, gagged and blindfolded, were thrown onto the minimalist set on stage at the Beckett Theatre.

It’s Sept. 11, 14 years to the day after the attack on the Twin Towers that quickly led to the start of America’s War on Terror in the Middle East. Hostage situations have splayed across TV screens on a regular basis since the start of the war, but something about seeing two American men dressed as hostages in an intimate theater makes the emotions of war real again. 

“Heads,” a 90–minute slice of hostage life written by E. M. Lewis and directed by Laura Savia, came back to New York for a second time on the anniversary of the event that changed America. 

The play has been running since 2007. Since then, the Boko Haram insurgency began, Osama bin Laden was killed, the Iraq War ended, the Islamic State replaced Al Qaeda, the beheading of multiple journalists was put online and the War in Afghanistan continues to rage on. Yet “Heads” still resonates as a play that appears to be ripped from the headlines.

“Heads” sticks with a cast of four hostages: a freelance photojournalist, a network journalist, a British Embassy worker and an American engineer.  There is limited action in the play. Time passes primarily through smooth transitions between two adjacent cells as intense, and at times darkly comical, dialogue gives insight into gradual acceptance of full vulnerability and a total loss of control.

On stage left, the first men introduced are a stark contrast of personalities and goals. Freelance photojournalist Jack Velazquez, played by José Leon, is a hardened soul without a family to fall back on. Connecticut network journalist Michael Aprés, played by Michael Turner, is new to war, and recites journalistic principles of objectivity as if he just passed a college journalism course. 

On stage right, Harold Wolfe, a long–term American engineer hostage played by David Dotterer, is the epitome of calm acceptance. His methodology of keeping an ounce of sanity is the opposite of the emotionally complex character of Caroline Conway, the British Embassy worker played by Kim Martin–Cotten. 

Each character has clearly defined motivations and remarkably fleshed–out back stories. The audience is exposed to the harsh realities of being a hostage, but also the role of the war–time press, PTSD and the limits of the human mind and body.

Martin–Cotten’s range of emotions steals the show. The small theater puts the audience essentially in the cell, and the tension is heart–racing as Martin–Cotten trembles in fear from her hand to her cheek. She also gets the audience laughing at (with?) the dark British humor of someone who has lost all hope, but finds solace in Elton John’s rendition of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” The audience is there, emotionally and physically, with the help of Martin–Cotten and the rest of the cast’s full commitment to the characters, even if it is the last place one would want to be.

The minimalist set plays a vital role as well. Careful lighting puts the dialogue front and center, while most of the physical action happens off stage. Audio and a brief projected video make the off–stage action come alive.

Political and shock–value statements of a hostage situation would have been the easy route for E. M. Lewis. Those dramas unfold on the 24–hour news cycle. Instead, Lewis tells a human story of anger, fear, friendship and mental collapse. 

“Heads” will be at the Beckett Theatre until Sept. 20

Sacred Heart University’s Theatre Arts Program has teamed with its in-residence professional company, Connecticut Children’s Theatre, Inc. (CCT, Inc.) to fund and produce a limited run of “Heads,” in New York at The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. 

The production will allow students at Sacred Heart University majoring in Theatre Arts, to take part in all creative and technical areas, and to work with a professional director on staging the show in an Off-Broadway venue. Students will be tasked with taking on all production positions including designers, stage management, assistant director, running crew, house crew, graphics, as well as marketing and social media.