The late Miguel Pinero's "Short Eyes," the initial offering of the Essential Theater Company, premiered in New York 25 years ago. At the time, it was a slice-of-prison-life melodrama whose rawness and obscenities shocked and thrilled bourgeois white critics and audiences.

Now that the play isn't breaking any taboos, it's revealed as a conventional enough drama. White middle-class child molester Clark Davis (Jon Benoit) is put in prison with a bunch of black and Puerto Rican criminals. Pinero is frustratingly unforthcoming about why most of the men are imprisoned, but whatever their crimes, each of them despises any man who abuses children, pinning on him the derisive nickname "short eyes."

Clearly it's only a matter of time until something unpleasant happens to Davis. The catalyst is the young inmate Julio (Maurice Tscherny), nicknamed "Cupcakes" for his cute behind. Julio is continually fending off the half-mocking attentions of the other prisoners. Finally, to distract a potential rapist named Paco (Jaime Robert Carrillo), he manipulates the men's hostility so that it focuses on Davis.

Julio is the protagonist of the play, but Anton Dudley, director of the Essential production, doesn't present him that way. The character is off to the side, just one of many, until suddenly in the third act the audience finds itself spending a lot of time with him and realizes that he is what the play has been about. Tscherny's performance further confuses the issue--he seems like something of a flirt, constantly touching the other guys, and it comes as a surprise when Paco's attentions terrify him.

Since the production has no distinct story line, all the audience has to latch on to is the various characters. These are crudely drawn--the Black Muslim, the white "drug fiend," the decent fellow, the bully, etc.--but energetically written, and several of the actors dig right into their roles: KenYatta Rogers, as a prisoner named Ice, is hilarious giving a monologue on masturbation. Others don't appear to know quite what they're doing. As the luckless Davis, Benoit gives a twitchy performance right out of an old horror movie.

Particularly with Julio's story de-emphasized, "Short Eyes" exists only to teach the presumably pampered audience a lesson about the gritty reality of minorities in prison. This side of the play is a little creepy. An audience today, familiar with the truths "Short Eyes" claims to expose, can't help noticing its freak-show element--the way Pinero shows off the men's coarseness and danger, as if they were exhibits for the timid, clueless but titillated audience to peer at. The play intends to arouse our outrage and sympathy, but it also invites us to condescend.

Short Eyes, by Miguel Pinero. Directed by Anton Dudley. Set, N. Eric Knauss; lights, Shawn Northrip; costumes and props, Augustine von Doppleganger. With Kelvin Davis, Jonathan Bailey, Jeorge Watson, Jen DeMayo, Dennis Keefe, Colby Codding and Matthew Hencke. At the D.C. Jewish Community Center through Aug. 29. Call ProTix at 703-218-6500.

CAPTION: Kelvin Davis, left, and Jonathan Bailey in Essential's "Short Eyes."