The thesis play, a somewhat contrived genre that has fallen out of fashion in today's theater, pitches a specific social problem in the laps of the spectators, who are then expected to ponder it and come up with a solution or at least a little righteous indignation.
In doing so, however, the thesis play usually poses a second problem, no less thorny than the first. You can be perfectly sympathetic to the playwright's arguments, applaud his cause, endorse his cries for action and still find his play to be a fraudulent bill of goods. Making a case in the theater is not necessarily the same thing as making drama.
Take the example at hand -- Henry Denker's "Outrage," which opened a six-week engagement in the Eisenhower Theater last night. Denker is both angry and concerned and he has a burning issue to lay out before us: the shoddy state of our courtrooms. The way Denker sees it, the American public no longer views the law as immutable, applying to Tom the same equitable principles it applies to Tim. It is riddled with loopholes and escape hatches, which appear to give every advantage to the guilty and none to the innocent. When self-confessed criminals routinely slip through the slippery fingers of justice and return to the streets, how long will it be before the average citizen takes a gun in his hand and marches off in hot pursuit of the very justice the courts no longer seem to mete out?
This is precisely what has happened before the curtain rises on "Outrage." A certain Dennis Riordan (Michael Higgins), scrupulously law-abiding for all but a fraction of his 66 years, watched in mounting pain and incredulity as the man who raped and killed his daughter beat the crime on a legal technicality. Riordan is not a vengeful man, but this vast inequity tormented him. Tracking down his daughter's killer, he put four bullets through his body and then promptly surrendered to the police. Riordan makes no bones about being a murderer. But is he, Denker is wondering, a murderer with just and due cause?
"Outrage" is Riordan's trial, and we, the audience, are his jury. As the witnesses parade on and off, the evidence against him piles up. Riordan contests none of it. The only tactic open to his cocky defense attorney (Peter Evans) is to plead insanity. But Riordan will have none of that, either. He did what he did because the law wouldn't do it for him. And he wants the world to know it, which leads us to the crux of Denker's play. By having the defense attorney summon one of those surprise witnesses that courtroom dramas are so fond of, our whole system of justice suddenly finds itself on trial. The final 15 minutes of "Outrage" constitute an outright debate of the issue.
As debates go, this one is pertinent and involving. Denker's subject matter is timely, indeed, and those who have been absorbed by the John Hinckley and Stephanie Roper cases, for example, will no doubt follow the ins and outs of "Outrage" with equal interest. As a piece of theater, however, we are dealing with something else entirely. Denker has put together a rather rickety, manipulative piece of stagecraft, dotted with ersatz coups de the'a tre that erupt as regularly as clockwork (even though the clock on the courtroom wall isn't working).
It is not Denker's characters who are propelling this drama. It is Denker himself. The playwright has assumed the role of puppet master. He has, of necessity, compressed the often meandering and tedious procedures of the courtroom, but in compressing them, he has created a climate less of truth than of harangue and rhetoric. Indicatively, one of his characters, a sleazy literary agent who wants to capitalize on Riordan's notoriety, is all too accurate in theory, but in practice (and in the eager playing of Humbert Allen Astredo) he is flagrantly caricatural. Gray is not a color on Denker's black and white palette.
Director Edwin Sherin has hyped up the various confrontations, which gives the play energy at the further loss of verisimilitude, though it's hard to imagine what other tactic he could have taken. Higgins is the outward picture of defeat as the father, but the character has a soul of pure obstinacy and Higgins deftly avoids making him an easy martyr. Kene Holliday brings vigor to the role of the prosecuting attorney and Alan Hewitt and Ralph Bell give us two contrasting judges -- one lofty and fatuous, the other prickly and impatient. The sharpest performance, however, comes from Evans, as the feisty defense attorney, who is fighting with one hand tied behind his back. Evans' scrappy charm and his pugnacious wit are this production's surest assets.
Nonetheless, we are left with two problems. One of them -- what to do about the seemingly quixotic behavior of our judicial system -- is intentional. The other -- how to reconcile the jerry-built dramaturgy of "Outrage" with the sincerity of its intentions -- is not.
OUTRAGE. By Henry Denker. Directed by Edwin Sherin; set, John Falabella; costumes, David Murin; lighting, Marcia Madeira. With Peter Evans, Michael Higgins, Humbert Allen Astredo, Ralph Bell, Alan Hewitt. At the Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 15.