When a dramatic character is obsessed with an old but well-known song and sings it to a fake tune that has nothing to do with the real one, you know a play’s got trouble. That happens in Perp, The Barrow Group’s new play, although its flaws become clear well before we hear the song.Lyle Kessler of Orphans fame, would have stepped in, since he put the song there in the first place. I’m referring, by the way, to the schmaltzy oldie, “Mother” (“‘M’ is for the million things she gave me . . .”), and the feeble drama in which they’re heard. Did anyone, I wonder, mention this in the post-show talk-back I hadn’t the time to stay for?
Even without this musical stumble, Perp is an unconvincing, preachy, borderline surreal attempt to examine issues of good and evil within the context of a man wrongfully convicted of murder. Its attack on the criminal justice system has a certain satirical quality but far from enough to warrant all the laughs when I attended; let’s just chalk it up to chacun à son gout (or a passel of friends). I chuckled once, more from duty than necessity.
TBG’s little stage, its brick walls exposed on either side, is backed by Edward T. Morris’s set of what looks like a wall of rusty metal. With the help of Marika Kent’s versatile lighting, revolving a central section on a small turntable allows for swift changes of locale. We thus go from a police interrogation room to a jail cell, a forest, a shack, a bar, and so on, as we witness the fate of our chunky, hapless hero, Douglass (Ali Arkane).
|Ali Arkane. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
A young jogger has been slain and raped in the woods, Douglass has been arrested, and two callously snarky detectives, Harvey (Paul Ben-Victor) and Jack (Tricia Alexandro, in a role originally written for a man) are questioning him. Hungry for a conviction (another notch on their belts, someone says), they banter with Douglass and each other, playing cruelly subtle mind games as part of their practiced routine.
|Paul Ben-Victor, Ali Arkane, Tricia Alexandro. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
Their manipulations easily convince the likable dope that, even though they know he’s innocent, he should confess, because his incarceration will lead to finding the real killer, with Douglass celebrated as a hero.
|Ali Arkane, Javier Molina. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
We see in Douglass a goodhearted naïf, a poor schnook who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t seem to have a mental deficiency, and who no lawyer would ever allow to be treated like this. But nary a legal representative is seen nor heard of, the conviction is a fait accompli, and Douglass is thrown in the clink. Despite a crime with widespread TV notoriety, the kind that would have people protesting in the streets, no one seems to care about it.
|Javier Molina. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
Making it even more impossible to accept is that, for all his sweet, childlike innocence, Douglass is actually very smart, at least when it serves the playwright’s purposes. He has a scientific interest in insects and earthworms, has no problem understanding words like the frequently used “conundrum,” pronounces Schuylkill better than I, makes a sermon-like public speech on being given an award, and consistently beats his eccentric, African-American cellmate, Myron (Craig Mums Grant), a checkers expert, at the game.
On the other hand, he’s thick enough to let the cops send him to prison, needs the concept of “notches” explained, and is confused by the word “mitigating.” He, of course, constitutes the play’s conundrum.
|Craig Mums Grant (below), Ali Arkane. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
Because you can’t trust a single thing that follows, including his escape, you realize it’s all a setup allowing the characters to wax philosophical about mortality, good and evil, the concept of time, and to quote the Bible. You may even begin to feel you’re here more for a sermon than a play, although the point of the sermon is pretty vague.
Much of this comes out in the draggiest scene of an already draggy play when Douglass finds himself in the abode of the actual killer, Harry (Javier Molina). The events here are so unlikely that, if an intermission came when it ended, it’s where I would have fled had I not the steely discipline of a professional reviewer, forged in the heat of so many other dramatic misfires.
|Tricia Alexandro, Ali Arkane, Paul Ben-Victor. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
The staging by TBG artistic director Lee Brock heightens the play’s weaknesses more than it helps them. Tedious pacing, especially in Harry’s scene, and a tendency to place one character upstage and another down, forcing the latter (usually Douglass) to try speaking upstage and down at the same time, are particular drawbacks.
|Craig Mums Grant. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
Arkane struggles to find the right tone for Douglass, his essential approach being to keep a goofy half-smile on his face. Grant brings the right grizzled wisdom to Myron and Molina can do nothing with Harry. Ben-Victor and Alexandro as the smarmy cops offer the strongest performances, she especially, making the most of the sardonic repartee that provides the play’s most effective scenes.
|Craig Mums Grant, Ali Arkane. Photo: Edward T. Morris.|
Otherwise, Perp could be summed up, to the tune of M-O-T-H-E-R, in the song I cited earlier:
“P” is for the pressure to confess crime
“E” is for Doug’s earthworms and his bugs
“R” is for his readiness to do time
“P” is for police who act like thugs
Put them all together they spell PE—RP
A play I can’t give many hugs.
The Barrow Group Mainstage
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through April 11