Miguel Pinero, author of the searing prison drama "Short Eyes," has cautioned the public not to regard his play as a documentary.

"It's a work of art," he says. And Pinero is right. The play, which is running at the Back Alley Theater Thursdays through Sundays until April 17, is a fascinating look into the world of prison life and the complex relationships between blacks, Puerto Ricans and Anglo-Saxons. He knows this slice of life well, having served time in Sing Sing.

The 11-man cast includes a variety of characters colorful enough to represent a broad section of humanity. There are passive types, protesters, socially conscious prisoners and those who see crime as being inevitable, homosexuals and sadists.

They come together in the dayroom of a house of detention, each testing one another's humanity and in the process discovering something about himself. For two acts in these cramped quarters, they are embroiled in questions of sex, race, religion and Criminal behavior.

In the end, the prisoners murder a man accused of child molesting. Their term for him is "short eyes," which is prison jargon for an adult who sexually abuses children, the most despicable of criminals.

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In killing an emotionally disturbed person, they vent their fear and hatred of each other. However, they do no more than what outsiders do except perhaps in a more intense manner.

The play has abundant force, which unfortunately becomes unrelenting at times. The feuding among prisoners, the vulgarity, the violence are presented with unrelieved intensity.

The drama is absent of fine shadings, poetry or oblique ways of confronting reality. Even for convicts, life contains some introspection, lyricism or charity. These are human characteristics, not those of a privileged class or group. The play depicts such qualities best in the relationship between Juan Otero, a Puerto Rican in his early 30s, and Clarp Davis, the accused child molester.

The acting ranges from good to inept. Raymond Green is crisp and thoroughly believable in his portrayal of the supercool John "Ice" Wicker Andres F. Costas-centivany evokes joy, good humor and bittersweet sadness in his reading of Paco Pasqual.