NEW YORK — STAND-UP TRAGEDY Play by Bill Cain. Directed by Ron Link. At Criterion Center Stage Right. `STAND-UP TRAGEDY'' dramatizes the experiences of an idealistic teacher at a small Roman Catholic school for Hispanic boys on New York's Lower East Side. Naive but persevering, Tom Griffin (Jack Coleman) has opted against law school for a career than ``can make a difference.'' The prospect of attempting to educate underprivileged youngsters amid the grim environs of a violence-plagued inner city does not daunt him.
Drawing from his own experience in such a school, Bill Cain has written an authentically based drama, with a deep sense of humanity to permeate its mordant bitterness and tragic irony. Under Ron Link's direction, a splendid cast gives the work the insightful, high-energy performance it demands.
Challenged by the sardonic admonitions of Father Ed Larkin (Charles Cioffi), the school's hard-bitten headmaster, Tom soon discovers in Lee Cortez (Marcus Chong) the promising pupil who will become his proteg'e. Beginning with cultural excursions around New York, Tom extends his friendly overtures by inviting Lee to a family Thanksgiving dinner and eventually asking the youngster to stay with him.
Inevitably, the playwright begins pointing up the complications, dilemmas, and misunderstandings which can follow such well-meant overtures. Tom finds himself involved not only with Lee but the boy's irresponsible yet possessive mother and his violence-prone elder brother (both roles convincingly played by the versatile Mr. Chong).
``Stand-Up Tragedy'' begins and ends with gunfire. The in-between series of illuminating events and situations comprise almost a pop opera of inner-city life, with incidental music by Craig Sibley. The performance abounds in rap songs and acrobatic dances, choreographed by Charles Randolph Wright and brilliantly performed by the young ensemble. Highlighting the evening's comic relief is a student-faculty basketball game, played for all it's worth across the bare stage. A few movable green benches are designer Yael Pardess's concessions to furniture in a setting that features a background of broken windows and a grim skyline beyond. Carol Brolaski's costumes add to the atmosphere.
Besides the principals already mentioned, the first-rate cast includes John C. Cooke and Dan Gerrity as quirky faculty members and Ray Oriel, Anthony Barille, Robert Barry Fleming, and Darrin DeWitt Henson as their obstreperous charges. Most of the company have already appeared in the productions mounted at the mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and the Hartford Stage Company.
Whatever the prospects may be for serious drama in the unfolding season, ``Stand-Up Tragedy'' has stared things off with a blast.