Death Row has always seemed a strange place for a William Inge play. “The Last Pad” turned out to be Inge’s final play, and until now its biggest notoriety was that it helped make Nick Nolte a star when it premiered at the old Contempo Theatre (now the Westwood Playhouse) in 1973, four days after the playwright’s suicide.
Today, the play is back again, in a strong production presented by Amnesty International at the Friends and Artists Theatre. Inge, who expanded and developed “The Last Pad” from his earlier execution-day drama, “The Disposal,” did not bring any fresh ideas to the anti-capital punishment theme. In fact, Inge stacked the deck with three Death Row inmates in “The Last Pad” who, if not wholly sympathetic, are classic arguments against state-sanctioned executions. Fair enough.
What rings true in the production is Inge’s dramatic instinct, the give-and-take among the prisoners, which keeps the play from slipping into pretension. You feel you’re in prison, for one thing (Robert Zentis is the designer, and the clanging doors are a chilling sound effect). Ultimately, the show’s energy can be clearly traced to director Billy Hayes, and it can’t go ignored that Hayes is the same Hayes who spent five years in a Turkish prison, as chronicled in the book and film “Midnight Express.” If ever a director was right for a job, Hayes is it.
Hayes takes a little license. There’s a gay inmate (Archie, the bulky, bitchy and devastatingly cynical and witty Peter Van Norden) who asks the guard during mail call if he has a letter for him from Richard Gere. Back in 1973, Inge’s movie star who triggered the chuckle was Alain Delon. And Hayes has introduced to the script, in the play’s final moments, a shockingly realistic wooden model of an electric chair. Straps, a Frankenstein metal head plate and searing lighting ignite the stage.
The play demands an ending at this point, but there is an anti-climatic scene with yet a new doomed youth who takes the cell that was the last pad of wife-killer and leading character Jess (the convincing Alan Gelfant). This old Nolte role fails to hold up well. It’s cut-and-dried stuff, and Inge doesn’t even broach the reasons behind the man’s crime.
Gelfant, though, coiled and feverish, subtly catches a prisoner’s loss of personality.
The other principal figure in this drama is a comparatively calm black Death Row inmate, portrayed distinctively by Robert Doqui.
A most affecting tintype portrait comes from Michael Berry as the burned-out father who visits the doomed youth. These scenes are the best written moments.
At 1761 N. Vermont Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through Nov. 11. $15. Free parking at rear of theater. (213) 466-1767.