As Dostoevsky keenly observed, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons." By that measure alone, playwright Miguel Pinero's Short Eyes, an unflinchingly brutal and surprisingly poignant scapegoating drama, remains just as relevant and unflattering to American pretensions of moral leadership today as when it premiered in 1974. Fortunately, director Julian Acosta's riveting and muscular revival (which has reopened for a six-week extension) matches Pinero's indictment of contemporary social savagery blow for blow with some of the finest ensemble work of recent memory. Set in a day room at New York's Rikers Island jail (on Geronimo Guzman's institutionally distressed set), the play examines the racially determined caste system and rigid "criminal code" that defuses the tripwire violence of prison life. Its population is divided into three tribes: the Puerto Ricans, led by both the brooding but upstanding Juan (David Santana) and the sexually predatory Paco (Jason Olazabal); the blacks, whose elder statesman is veteran con and unrepentant junkie Ice (Carl Crudup); and the minority whites, represented by the swaggering and unscrupulous Longshoe (Mark Rolston). It's a volatile tinderbox just waiting for a match, which Pinero dutifully strikes in the form of hapless "fresh fish" and accused child molester Clark (Sean Escalante).
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: Feb. 2. Continues through March 11, 2012