Written by Desi Moreno-Penson
Directed by Lorca Peress
Costume design by Lisa Renee Jordan
Projection design by Jan Hartley
Wig design by John Dallas
Choreography by Jennifer Chin
Sound design by Sun Hee Kil
Lighting design by Kia Rogers
Fight director Carlotta Summers
Scenic design by Jen Varbelow
Take a thick, juicy slice of magical realism, season it with a pinch of Gothic literature, add a soupcon of grand guignol and a dollop of Yiddish folklore, marinate the whole thing in a jazzy Bronx patois, and sear it over the flames of Abe Beam’s infernally discontented New York, and you might get something like the wild banquet currently on offer at the 14th Street Y’s black box theater. A strong contender for Oddest Show of the Season, OMINOUS MEN is not for the squeamish. But for those like their drama served up with piquancy and guts, Desi Moreno-Penson’s visionary concoction is a dish well worth sampling.
Youngm street-smart Butch (Johnny Rivera), has been hired by the city to act as a caretaker to an old dilapidated tenement in the South Bronx. The job is not exactly a stepping stone to prosperity, but our man has a secret plan. According to local legend, mobster “Big Tony” Carafano used the place as a gambling den where high end clients like the New York Yankees came to test the odds. Skimming off the top, Big Tony stashed a cache of ill-gotten under the floor of the building. Unfortunately for Carafano, he never got a chance to retrieve it. Once his bosses got wise to his pilfering, it was lights out for Tony. The money, so the story goes, lies untouched like a pirate’s buried treasure in the place where Tony entombed it, just waiting for an enterprising prospector to dig it up. For Butch, money means redemption. He and his wife Merlina have split because of Butch’s heroin addiction and abusive behavior. Now, he claims to have kicked the habit, and he hopes that if he goes back to El Barrio with some money in his pocket, Merlina will give him a second chance. Of course, it will take a team effort to dig up the booty, so Butch enlists the help of his goofy cousin Goyo (Gus Scharr) and a former Black Panther named Yancy (Russell Jordan), who fled Oakland under suspicious circumstances. It won’t be easy to convince the guys that he’s a trustworthy leader, but that’s hardly Butch’s most pressing problem. He also must contend with unannounced visits from Herschel “Mordy” Mordecai (Howard Pinhasik), a moldy and decidedly unfriendly ghost who mourns a vanished Jewish Bronx and rues the sins that damned him to a crappy afterlife. Speaking a combination of Yiddish and broken English, he shows off his gory stab wounds and cautions Butch that he, too, will come to a bad end if continues to pursue the filthy lucre.
So far, so weird. But that’s only the beginning. Tensions intensify as the blackout of ’77 turns the city into a temporary utopia for looters and nut jobs, while inside the building a shapeshifting entity named Mundoo (Renoly Santiago) bedevils Butch and the gang with his trickster antics. Morphing from one identity to another, Mundoo at first appears to Yancy as a member of the vanished indigenous Siwanoy tribe. He has a very different impact on Mordy, who swears he remembers Mundoo from a Nazi concentration camp. Whatever Mundoo is, he knows how to worm his way into the psyches of the would-be thieves, stirring up doubt and turning the men against each other. The underworld has more surprises in store, including a visitation form white-clad Woman (Gabrielle Lee) from Yancy’s grisly past. For most of us, this would be enough of an impetus to cut and run, but these Bronx-toughened men aren’t easily dissuaded from their goals. They forge ahead into the haunted darkness, heedless of the fact that, in this rumble, the dead have the home turf advantage.
Aided by an imaginative design team, director Lorca Peress creates a seductively spooky landscape evocative of of Henry Fuseli’s nightmare paintings. The actors, clearly thrilled to have such meaty parts to sink their teeth into, navigate the play’s multiple twists with skill and brio, giving us tangible characters to identify with as the plot sinks deeper into madness. Thanks to their emotional intensity, show unfolds like a piece of music, establishing a rhythm in the early scenes then bringing it to a crescendo as the plot . There are some inconsistencies in the pacing of the show, especially towards its denouement, but these minor flaws are outweigh by the show’s unique blend of funhouse chills, poetic language and cathartic drama. As Halloween and Day of the Dead approacheth, OMINOUS MEN makes an ideal macabre mood-setter.
OMINOUS MEN continues through November 3, 2019 at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://14streety.org/ominousmen