Written and directed by Paul Calderon
Co-directed by Katherine Calderon
A kind of AMERICAN BUFFALO simmered in the flavors and rhythms of the barrio, Paul Calderon’s gritty crime drama puts a fresh spin on the heist-gone-wrong genre. Beginning on a surreal note, DIVINE HORSEMEN’s prologue shows Jojo (Sebastian Mitre) committing seppuku while images of video superheroes, salsa musicians, and other elements of his addled psyche. Jojo’s suicide is but one of many casualties that have devastated the neighborhood’s old guard. Hardly anything remains of crew that used to hang out at the Caballeros Divinos social club, and the few who have managed to sidestep death and imprisonment are finding it harder and harder to make a buck, let alone get a little respect. Iffy (David Zayas), runs a candy store that proves an easy target for robbers. Dapper Willie (Paul Calderon), ekes out a living as a thug-for-hire. Among other rackets, Iffy and Willie kidnap dogs and return them for reward money. It’s a distasteful business, especially when the less desirable dogs have to be euthanized with baseball bats.
Prospects don’t seem much brighter for the younger generation. Benny (Robert Lee Leng), who was once a promising baseball pitcher, is now reduced to seducing and bilking older women. Unfortunately, it’s not enough: Benny owes money to a local loan shark, and is running out of time to pay it back. All three of these desperate men could use a break, and one finally arrives in an unexpected place. Jojo, it turns out, left behind a huge cache of mint-condition comic books and baseball cards. Benny convinces Iffy and Willie to help him make the most of this treasure trove of collectibles, but there is, of course, a catch. To get all that swag out of Jojo’s crib, the gang will have to sneak past his autistic little brother Raffi (David Deblinger). This proves challenging, especially when Raffi turns up at the social club at the worst possible time. Easily provoked and prone to wild tantrums, Raffi is more dangerous than a loaded gun. This volatile situation inevitably descends into madness, as the men find themselves forced to make split-second decisions in a world where human life has less value than an old issue of Spiderman.
Calderon’s dialogue captures the cadences and embellishments that distinguish New York Street-speak. He and Zayas make the most of their staccato exchanges and imagistic monologues, while also embodying the physicality of their archetypes. Zayas lumbers about the stage like a weary combat veteran who has seen too much bloodshed. He is nimbly counterbalanced by the agile Calderon, who moves with the grace and lethality of a prizefighter in his prime.
For all it’s vitality, DIVINE HORSEMEN is still in a raw stage of its development. It needs a more even pace, and a smoother execution of its fight choreography. Most likely, though, if the production gets the longer, better-funded run it deserves, these rough edges will correct themselves in time.
DIVINE HORSEMEN continues through January 27, 2018 at the Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, New York, NY 10013. Tickets: https://divinehorsemen.brownpapertickets.com/