Full disclosure: I consider actor/playwright/all-around good guy Michael McKeever a friend, and I am slated to have cocktails with him and his partner, director Stuart Meltzer, next Thursday. I hope our plans are not canceled after he reads this review of his new play, Unreasonable Doubt, which is premiering at Actors' Playhouse. I won't hold it against him if he fails to show up, though. Unreasonable Doubt is a mess.
The play's messiness has nothing to do with the cast (stellar), set (ditto), or even David Arisco's direction (which, while not very inventive, presents the material in a sympathetic manner). The play's problems are purely textual, and only its author can fix them.
I hope he will, because Unreasonable Doubt could be an important play. Its subject matter is the American justice system — specifically, the right of any American accused of a crime to hire a defense attorney. This is not nearly as dry as it sounds. The play opens with the well-dressed Ellis Burke (Terry Hardcastle) lying on a couch, bound and gagged, and menaced by a Scotch-swilling madman with a gun. That man is Ty Bosworth (Gordon McConnell), the bereaved father of a 10-year-old girl who was raped and murdered by a serial killer.
Unreasonable Doubt: By Michael McKeever. Directed by David Arisco. Through June 6. Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; actorsplayhouse.org.
Her terrible fate could have been averted if only a hotshot lawyer hadn't helped the killer beat a previous rap. That lawyer was none other than Mr. Burke — the man now lying on the couch, mentally composing what will be the defense of his life.
To kidnap the man he believes responsible for his daughter's death, Ty has enlisted the help of his baby brother, Terry (Antonio Amadeo), a sad little fellow who lacks either the stomach for murder or the spine to stop it. He moons about the corners of Ty's house like a listless ghost, nauseated by what is taking place.
But it will take more than nausea to stop Ty Bosworth. He wants Ellis Burke to feel exactly what his daughter felt in the 24 hours between her abduction and death. This involves, among other things, more than 20 cigarette burns to the body and the savage breaking of fingers and ribs. As I sat in the audience, my stomach turned. Unreasonable Doubt would be a brutal and difficult play, I thought, but perhaps its brutality would prove instructive.
Didn't happen. Burke's torture takes place in an offstage den, ceding the spotlight to two deeply uninteresting characters whose presence imbues the play with the gravitas of a Lifetime Original Movie. One of them, Ty's stepmother (Barbara Bradshaw), provides comic relief to a show that doesn't need any. The other, Ty's ex-wife and the dead girl's mother, has no evident purpose beyond sugarcoating the play's bitter pill with a heartwarming moral.
Note to aspiring dramatists: The most interesting room in any house is the one in which a lawyer is being tortured to death. Yes, you can mine some drama from the room in which two divorced parents struggle to reach a rapprochement, but that's another play. I cannot imagine why McKeever, despite his famously prodigious talents, didn't make that distinction. Perhaps his native good nature compelled him to blunt the horror of his subject matter — or maybe he really does see the torture and probable murder of a lawyer as an opportunity to explore themes of family togetherness (and, in a mind-bending twist, Talmudic wisdom). Alas, the reasons don't matter. Where there could have been a fierce interrogation of justice, grief, and revenge, there is instead an interminable series of sobs, sorrows, and platitudes. There is even an attempt at a happy ending, as though murder and the abortion of justice are problems to be disposed of between curtain up and curtain call.
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But that's a philosophical concern, and Unreasonable Doubt's central difficulty is much more prosaic. Very simply: By moving Burke's torture offstage, McKeever front-loads all of the drama. Its most profound moment is that first scene, in which we meet the bound man on the couch and learn of the sickening events that brought him there. The rest of the show comprises increasingly hysterical talk, which tries and fails to match the first scene's pathos. The play devolves into an empty display of histrionics, and McConnell's desperate wails blur into droning monotony. McConnell is as fine an actor as I've seen, but even he can cry only so many times before I get bored.
This is a pity because the play's central idea is so very worth contemplating. No one wants to live in a country where an alleged criminal can be punished without due process, because we all know that, in such a system, we could all be bound for the gaol. As revolted as we might feel by the work of a skilled defense attorney — Johnny Cochran, say — most of us understand his existence is a necessary evil. No human mind's subjective perception of guilt and innocence can be considered gospel, and that goes for lawyers too. Just because an attorney thinks his client is guilty doesn't make him right. Et suppositio nil ponit in esse, as they say.
Burke is trotted out of the den from time to time to give his version of this argument, but not often enough. These scenes seem almost tacked on — interruptions in the play's otherwise smooth froth of tears and saccharine — and they are certainly underthought. I've enjoyed more interesting and nuanced conversations about the right to an attorney with teenagers.
So, more thought, please, and less mommy. More anger and less bleating. As it is, by play's end, McConnell is reduced to delivering lines such as "She'll never laugh again!" while crying into his cupped hands. Sure, a grieving parent might say such a thing, but why should we watch it? Onstage personas should be a bit more illuminating, or at least less bathetic. And if they must revel in bathos, is it too much to ask that they break a few ribs while they do it?