Bitterman's `Ten Below' Explores Compassion and Need

TEN BELOW. Play by Shem Bitterman. Directed by Stephen Zuckerman. Setting by Edward Gianfrancesco. Lighting by Richard Winkler. Costumes by Mimi Maxmen. At the WPA Theatre through June 27.

SHEM BITTERMAN'S "Ten Below" depicts man's humanity to man in dire circumstances.

Kevin Conway, one of America's finest stage actors (best known for his starring roles in Broadway's "The Elephant Man" and "Of Mice and Men" and the Off-Broadway hit, "Other People's Money"), plays a homeless man who finds a temporary home and some of his own hidden humanity in this thoughtful and sometimes lyrical memory play.

Conway's character, "the Kid," is haunted by a life of despair and self-loathing. When he is plucked off the sub-zero New York City streets by reclusive Good Samaritan Homer Beacon, he can't understand why anyone would want to help him.

"Your life has value," Homer tells Kid as he warms himself next to the heat of a single burner on an old stove in Homer's dilapidated room.

"Does it?" Kid angrily replies. "Why don't you tell me what value my life has? What gives you the right to pick a man off the sidewalk? Who gave it to you?"

Homer then tells Kid, who is, in fact, an older man, that as a boy he used to take care of wounded animals in a clearing in the woods near his home.

As the play proceeds, we see that Homer needs almost as much help as Kid. He has little self-worth and no personal aspirations. Kid helps him to understand that his life has value, too.

"You dragged me all those blocks and brought me up here. You don't got to say, `I'm sorry.' Stop saying, `I'm sorry,"' Kid admonishes.

This dark and emotionally powerful play also has surprising flashes of humor. Judging by his earlier work and this play's poetic monologues, Bitterman appears to be a playwright of some promise.

Anthony Edwards makes an impressive Off-Broadway debut, playing Homer with simple eloquence. Edwards is better known for his film ("Top Gun," "Mr. North," and "Revenge of the Nerds") and television ("Northern Exposure") roles.

Edward Gianfrancesco's highly-realistic set includes a room with plasterboard that's almost completely fallen off the walls - symbolic of the play's focus on exposing people's inner lives.

Stephen Zuckerman's agile direction nicely balances the play's light and dark moments. He seems to have restrained Conway's magnificent voice to underscore the play's poignant subtext - that two outcasts have found, however fleetingly, something of the meaning of home by helping each other.

In "Ten Below," man's compassionate nature emerges as anger and fear subside. It is heartening to witness a playwright and actors challenge traditional stereotypes (in this case, those regarding the homeless) in creating a work that points toward a human capacity for empathy.

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