In ‘Divine Horsemen,’ a Checklist of Tough-Guy Tropes

Posted January 18, 2018 11:30 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Benny is a small-time crook with a juicy operation in his sights. “Huge bills,” as he puts it. “It’s like, just sittin’ there cuzz it don’t belong to nobody.”

Oh, poor, dumb Benny: Don’t you know money’s never just sitting there? It usually comes with complications — pesky people who also want those bills and who you might have to deal with, perhaps in an aggressive manner. And by the way, the two neighborhood buddies you enlist to help? Well, maybe they’re not all that reliable.

In fact, Benny (Robert Lee Leng) is just the hapless detonator that sets off the drama in Paul Calderon’s “Divine Horsemen.” The explosives are the aforementioned friends, both older: Iffy (David Zayas), the grizzled bear of a man who runs Caballeros Divinos, a dingy Spanish Harlem social club; and Willie (Calderon, who also directs), a slick thug playing it cool. In tough-guy plays, movies and TV shows, nattily attired men often turn out to be violent sociopaths. In that tradition, the cocksure Willie calmly slinks into the club, acts much bigger than his schemes deserve — one involves stealing dogs, then returning them for the reward — and lords it over Benny and Iffy.

Iffy, portrayed with gruff assurance by Zayas (who was in the original productions of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street”), looks as if he could stand up to Willie, yet he falls in line with the aging alpha hoodlum. Calderon writes florid, rapid-fire New Yorkese, which is necessary because his characters’ gift of gab is all they have. Yet it all feels a little forced, as if the play was going down a checklist of tough-guy tropes. (As Chekhov didn’t write, if there is a baseball bat in a show, skulls need to be bashed at some point.)

“Divine Horsemen” goes back to 1995, as a workshop production at the Labyrinth Theater Company with a cast that included Calderon and Zayas, rounded out by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz. Calderon has done some rewrites for this much-delayed premiere, presented by his and Zayas’ Primitive Grace company. But the vibe remains, wittingly or not, almost nostalgic for when the poetry of masculine bravado held special mystique.

“Divine Horsemen” comfortably travels this familiar ground until about halfway through, when Benny comes up with his ill-fated idea, which involves stealing rare comic books and trading cards. The arrival of the mentally disabled Raffi (veteran Labyrinth member David Deblinger) then kicks the show into a higher gear for the finale: Deblinger’s outsize performance seems to electrify the rest of the cast.

Still, it’s hard not to feel frustrated. The best dramas dealing with violence use it to uncover greater truths about human nature. No such revelation happens in “Divine Horsemen,” whose petty ruffians somehow make tragedy feel small.

Event Information:

‘Divine Horsemen’

Through Jan. 27 at Access Theater, Manhattan; 800-838-3006, accesstheater.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.