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A CurtainUp Review Minor Demons

Sometimes it's hard to fathom all the hand wringing about the beleaguered theater when there's so much going on in New York City. On the day I went to see Minor Demons in a new space on East 15th Street, The New York Times ABC classified section featured an unprecedented number of show listings--two-thirds of the page, from top to bottom, filled with announcements of current and coming productions. Audiences seeing Minor Demons, at the Century Theater Center can experience the thrill that comes with being part of something new--in this case one of the most pleasing historic renovations to come down the pike. The remodeled Romanesque style landmark building once a private club for authors, artists and "amateurs of letters and fine arts" that included Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Benchley will include rehearsal studios and meeting facilities. The private club townhouse flavor is still there. The 299 seat theater --(that's a key number affecting actors' pay scales and thus the cost of a show)-- is a little jewel with perfect sight lines from every seat, including the two boxes flanking each side of the orchestra.

The premiere production is a play with enough substance to get things off to an auspicious start. It's a story about a lawyer caught between his own private demons and the legal demon known as the Miranda decision. This thirty-year-old law requires that all suspects be read their constitutional rights before making any incriminating statements. Without a "Miranda reading" even a confession of murder or rape could be thrown out as inadmissible evidence. As story after story of criminals set free on such a legal technicality made headlines, echoes of Charles Dickens' "then the law is an ass-an idiot," (Oliver Twist, could be heard from outraged citizens--and from writers of books, cops and lawyer serials and made-for-tv movies. Now, Bruce Graham uses this issue as the focal point for Minor Demons.

The story centers on Deke Winters (Reed Birney) a high-powered lawyer, who has come back to his home town to avoid the pressures and temptations that have destroyed his his personal life and threatened his professional equilibrium. Coming home also means re-establishing his link with the only family he has left--his best friend from high school and his wife, Vince and Carmella Del Gatto (Steve Ryan and Susan Pellegrino). But quiet little towns are not immune to sensational crimes and Deke's plans for fewer legal eagle high jinks are derailed when Kenny Simmonds (Charlie Hofheimer), a local teenager is charged with sexually abusing and murdering a high school classmate. He doesn't want the case but Diana Gardner (Amelia Marshall) a colleague who also provides the play's romantic interest insists. I don't want to give the whole story away, so suffice it to say that Deke's defense of the boy results puts him in double emotional jeopardy. Using a "Miranda" defense not only poses troubling moral consequences but endangers his friendship with Vince who happens to have been Peter Principled from Cop to Chief of a two-man police force.

What keeps all this from being just another version of the plethora of lawyer protagonist books and lawyer-cop television dramas, is Richard Harden's well-paced direction and the impressively strong cast. Equally important is the playwright's sure sense of place and on-target dialogue. His small town near Pittsburgh is anywhere-U.S.A. with a distinct regional sound. The locale and flavor evoke memories of another play that got its start in a downtown theater--Jason Miller's That Championship Season which sent audiences racing to the Papp Theater in 1972. Harden's portrait of the easy boyhood friendship of two men who have followed very different paths in life is rich with snappy repartee and layered with the inevitable touch of resentment of the not-so-bright but good-natured cop towards the friend who is smarter and better educated, made more money, and had a more interesting sex life. Steve Ryan is excellent as the blustery small town cop. Reed Birney does a fine job in depicting the addictive behavior patterns that have turned Deke's life into more of a nightmare come true than a dream fulfilled.

The secondary story of the accused boy and his parents is equally strong in its character delineation. Charley Hofheimer personifies the choir boy "bad seed" and Alexandra O'Karma shows the right mix of nervous apprehension and ineffectiveness as his mother. I can't say anything about David B. McConeghey since Murphy Guyer played Mr. Simmonds on the night I was there. The "other" story, that of the victim's parents is encapsulated into the single character, of the father poingnantly rendered by Robin Haynes. Amelia Marshall as the play's other lawyer is unfortunately saddled with the weakest part and some not very persuasive polemical speeches. The play moves physically to six different locations, which set designer Patrick Mann wisely chose to illustrate with a minimalist setting and Alan Michael Smith's effective lighting. This spare staging contributes to Minor Demon's achieving the minor triumph of overcoming its resemblance to a theatrical version of a TV show. That much said, the play's impact is more that of an entertaining evening than a theatrical experience likely to leave a long-lasting impression. That could happen if Mr. Graham ever decides to move his story forward, past the behind-the-headlines drama, and to a more in-depth reading of the interrelationships that take a back seat in the drama at hand.

by Bruce Graham
Directed by Richard Harden
Starring Reed Birney; with Charley Hofheimer, Robin Haynes, Alexandra O'Karma, Amelia Marshall, David B. McConeghey
Set Design: Patrick Mann
Lighting Design: Alan Michael Smith
Century Theatre, 111 East 15th Street (Union Square/Irving Place) (212) 239 - 6200
Opened March 1997 for an open run; closed April 13, 1997having run 14 previews and 33 regular performances.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

©Copyright 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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