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Theatre Review by James Wilson - March 25, 2019

Tricia Alexandro, Ali Arkane, and Paul Ben-Victor
Photo by Edward T. Morris

If you cross a Flannery O'Connor short story with a Coen brothers film, the result would be something like Lyle Kessler's Perp, which is receiving its premiere production by the Barrow Group. In a world teeming with corrupt detectives and with a serial killer on the loose, the play suggests that a good man may not be hard to find, but the forces of evil are truly stacked against him.

Perp begins with the interrogation of Douglass (Ali Arkane), a naïve young man with an apparent cognitive disability. Detectives Jack (Tricia Alexander) and Harvey (Paul Ben-Victor) are investigating the rape and murder (or is it murder and rape?) of a young woman. Since Douglass spends a good deal of time collecting bugs in the woods where the homicide took place, he is a likely suspect. Although Douglass seems to be completely incapable of committing such a heinous offense, the detectives convince him to confess to the crime. If he is convicted and goes to prison, their reasoning goes, the actual rapist/murderer will likely strike again, thereby allowing for the detectives to apprehend the real perpetrator. As a consequence, Douglass will be hailed as a national hero, and garnering massive public approval, he will receive a key to the city.

Douglass cheerfully goes to prison to help his new detective friends, and he quickly bonds with his anti-Semitic cellmate Myron (Craig Mums Grant) over games of checkers and tales of the Old West. Meanwhile, the killer continues to rape and murder victims, but Jack and Harvey do not respond to Douglass's calls for release. Myron, intending to make amends for his own bad deeds, conceives a plan to help Douglass escape, which involves a benevolent and easily corruptible prison trash man. Back in society, Myron explains, Douglass could potentially capture the perp and bring him to justice.

Best known for his play Orphans (revived on Broadway in 2013), Kessler has written a modern-day parable. Actually, Douglass has a saint-like quality, and he has a tendency to speak with biblical rhetoric. Summing up his view of humanity, he explains: "I believe there is Good and there is Evil. And God casts a light upon the Good. And without this light we would be overtaken by darkness and the world we live in would break away from the sun and fall into deep dark space." In fact, thanks to Marika Kent's lighting design, Douglass occasionally emits his own literal luminosity. (Edward T. Morris's scenic design and Kristin Isola's costumes help establish the stark and cheerless milieu.)

Craig Mums Grant and Ali Arkane
Photo by Edward T. Morris

Directed by Lee Brock, the performances are uniformly quite strong. Arkane is especially moving as Douglass, and he brings a good deal of sensitivity to the part. When Myron bluntly asks whether or not Douglass is "retarded," the young man responds, "I don't know what I am. . . . Sometimes I have these flashes of incredible insight, other times I don't have a clue." The portrayal could easily drift into uncomfortable caricature, but there is admirable restraint. And when the character comes face to face with evil and has to confront the darkness within himself, the performance takes on additional resonance.

Arkane is well matched by Grant's Myron, Douglass's cellmate. The actor manages to make the character immensely likeable even as he rails against Jewish rituals one minute and then in the next matter-of-factly explains, "I don't have a prejudice bone in my body myself."

Perp teasingly toys with similar contradictions, and it also has a number of affecting moments, particularly in the scenes with Douglass and Myron and between Douglass and Harry (Javier Molina), the suspected killer. Yet as a tense psychological thriller, the play's lack of credibility undercuts the sense of danger and suspense. Douglass's coerced confession and eventual imprisonment ring false (where is his schoolteacher mother or lawyers?), and the spontaneous escape would be comical if it were not so crucial to the events that follow.

With a good deal of talk about light and God, the play becomes preachy almost to (but thankfully not exceeding) the point of sermonizing. Indeed, the play would benefit from a more potent dash of Coen brothers-style dark absurdism.

Through April 11
The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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