By Ron Fassler
Lyle Kessler has been writing plays for more than fifty years now. When his first Broadway show, The Watering Place, premiered in March of 1969, it had the misfortune of closing in one night. That sort of personal trauma might have been enough to deter other young playwrights (he was all of twenty-five at the time), but not Kessler, who has been perfecting his craft steadily ever since. Orphans, his 1983 drama, won him much acclaim, awards and productions the world over, and was recently revived on Broadway with Alec Baldwin. And in addition to his prolific playwriting, Kessler is also a well-regarded teacher, who for many years, has been the Director of the Actor’s Studio Playwright/Directors Unit.
Now one of New York City’s most excellent theatre companies, The Barrow Group, is giving the world premiere of Kessler’s latest play, Perp, at their intimate space on West 36th Street. It works well for a play mostly contained to tight quarters, first in an interrogation room (the plays’ opening line is “Did you do it?”), to its finish in a prison. On a small, but well utilized stage, designed by Edward T. Morris, the story of a somewhat mentally challenged young man unfolds. When we first meet Douglass (sweetly played by Ali Arkane), he is being interrogated by a male and female cop team (Tricia Alexandro and Paul Ben-Victor), who by way of their characterizations, would not be out-of-place if seen on any TV police procedural. They badger the poor guy until we discover in the next scene, now wearing prison clothing and meeting his new cellmate, that Douglass has confessed to the rape and killing of a woman in the woods that he often frequents (he likes to collect bugs) and has been convicted.
When he tells this to his “been there-done that” new roommate Myron (in a wonderful performance by Craig Mums Grant) and proclaims he is innocent, it is met with the same derision every other new convict receives. But we know Douglass is innocent, and we fear for his innocence in that he has blindly trusted the two cops to find the “real” killer, while he lays low in prison, in order that they can give whoever’s still out there the false confidence to strike again with impunity. This is the plot point the play spins on, and I must confess, felt was too naïve and simplistic to play credibly. Such believability becomes further strained when Douglass easily escapes prison and happens to stumble upon the killer (Javier Molina) in his beloved woods. It was here when I felt the play was approaching a fanciful area, but no… it means to be taken seriously, which made my problem with the storytelling grow significantly.
It is by way of Douglass’s good nature, and his tendency to trust whoever is in his company, that he makes so many mistakes. Yet I believe it is Kessler’s point that it is the character’s innocence that is his best and unknowingly incisive trait. But unlike a similar character that came to mind while I was watching, that of Jerzy Kosiński’s Chance the Gardener in Being There, no greater lesson is imparted. What are we to make of this character, who winds up being rewarded without really changing all that much on such a dark and twisted journey? Is he to represent the innocence of us all, forever up against the corrupt evils of this world (even in the form of the police) who are supposed to protect and defend? Or is he some kind of Christ-like figure that is paying for our sins? Either of these two questions might, if better addressed, made the action more compelling and given its audience richer food for thought.
Under Lee Brock’s direction, the actors all acquit themselves well. They are believable, even if at times the writing is not. Perp feels like a play still searching for itself, and given an evocative start such as this one, might help propel it to better fortune in its next incarnation.
Photos: Edward T. Morris
Perp is at The Barrow Group, 312 W 36th Street, NYC 10018, now through April 11th. https://www.barrowgroup.org/perp