In telling the story of an innocent young man wrongly convicted of a brutal murder, Lee Brock’s highly watchable production of Lyle Kessler’s Perp becomes a battle between good and evil. Its colorful characters challenge black-and-white assumptions, which in turn gives rise to universal questions about which side of this dichotomy they are on. But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the play is the professional debut of Ali Arkane in the lead role. Arkane’s quirky portrayal of the protagonist Douglass is endearing through and through. With Douglass as the criminal center stage, Perp is one of the most serene crime dramas ever.
Doug, as he is also called, is not a hero on a grand scale, and Arkane’s performance is small and detailed as well. Doug is a simple citizen from Philadelphia, who was minding his own business collecting and studying bugs in the woods when he was taken in for questioning by police as a suspect in the murder of a jogger in the same woods.
Mild-mannered he may be, but Douglass, who is oversized, lumbering, socially awkward, and quite possibly on the autistic spectrum, holds one’s sympathy much as Lennie does in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Arkane appears to have dug deep to channel a bug lover with low-key, sluglike traits and a knowledge of the Bible :
Don’t be scared, don’t be frightened, little earthworm, I mean you no harm. You are the lowest of the low, but you are also the Holy of Holies. You are the mystery we cannot comprehend. You are the Chosen One. The Messenger of God. And I hear your message. It’s one of love and acceptance.
The detectives on the case, Jack (Tricia Alexandro) and Harvey (Paul Ben-Victor), have conveniently found their stooge. (Although both parts were written for men, Alexandro makes the role of Jack her own and stands up as counterpart to Ben-Victor.)
Crime drama is one of the most enduring popular genres, especially on TV, so the directorial decision to bring the essence of a TV cop partnership to the stage in Jack and Harvey’s banter works nicely, initially. The pace and punch of their quips is familiar and humorous, but alongside Arkane’s Douglass, who is so credible as a “real” person, it is jarring, making it difficult to buy into their romp.
Doug is the “good guy,” yet he is persuaded to plead guilty to the murder and is sent to prison. There he befriends his cellmate, Myron (Craig Mums Grant), and they pass the time playing checkers. Soon the tables are turned, however: the cops are the bad guys and the criminals are the good guys.
Myron decides to help Doug escape and find the real killer: “I’ve been considering this for days, nights,” he tells Doug. “And I know what you need to do…. You need to return to the woods and apprehend the killer.” Myron helps him escape back to the woods, where Douglass encounters the real “perp,” Harry (Javier Molina).
There is almost no surprise at all when Doug does encounter the killer because Perp is not about the actual crime and anxiety-producing plot twists toward the resolution of a mystery. It is about the search for the good in everyone, for morality even in evil deeds, and the ultimate power of love and light.
Edward T. Morris’s clever scenic design of coarsely textured painted metal panels onto which lighting effects (Marika Kent) define details such as the high narrow windows in the interrogation room, and the trees in the woods, enhance the storytelling. Scene changes are punctuated by brassy, percussive jazz suitable to the genre (Matt Otto provided the music and sound design).
The performances and the production’s overall simplicity harmonize with the play itself, to a subtle yet powerful effect. The power lies in daring to ask the audience to look at the complexities of human nature through the eyes of a child. And, like Douglass, to see as much good as we possibly can.
Perp runs through April 11 at The Barrow Group (312 West 36th St.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday–Monday. Tickets may be purchased by calling (866) 811-4111 or visiting barrowgroup.com.