Watching "Felony," a new play about computer crime and criminals presented by the Dirty Players Theatre Company, is a lot like watching your PC monitor freeze up while painting in a Web site. Much of the picture is there, but the most vital piece is missing.
Washington playwright Christine Axsmith, listed in her bio as an expert on computer security, has hard-wired together a story with an active plot, a simple but mysterious atmosphere and a sense of danger. What's missing is the human or emotional element that should be at the center of everything.
Harmony (Kerri Rambow), a troubled young woman with a juvenile police record and an alcoholic mother in prison, plans to hack into the computer system of the bank where she works, steal $50 million and frame her spoiled-rich-girl office mate, Molly (Kelly Doherty). Harmony also essentially manipulates her childhood pal Jamal (Maurice Tscherny) into helping her.
But behind Harmony's back, Jamal starts dating Molly. Then Harmony's recently sprung and sobered-up mom, Laura (Rena Cherry Brown), appears. Most of the action then turns on Laura's attempt to prevent the crime and straighten Harmony out so that the two of them can finally do the bonding thing.
Unfortunately, you never get any clear idea why Harmony is so insistent on doing what she does. She owes money, yes, but that's not enough to make her interesting for the better part of two hours, especially when Axsmith has written her as a self-pitying little snot.
And the underdeveloped mother-daughter relationship offers no insight into what the daughter really needs or wants. Harmony ends up evoking no empathy, much less sympathy: You rapidly start feeling she gets pretty much what she deserves.
Director Paul MacWhorter generally gives the evening an appropriate edge and some taut pacing. Occasionally, though, he loses focus (why is Jamal playing cards with himself throughout a crucial meeting with Harmony?). But the larger flaw is MacWhorter's failure to find and suggest any internal motivation in the protagonist, leaving Rambow to give us a soulless Harmony.
Doherty faces a similar problem with Molly, a character drawn in only two dimensions; the young actress isn't yet skilled enough to create the third. Jamal, however, is actually conflicted inside, and Tscherny makes an impressive, if not always successful, effort to give him some depth. Brown, a recent Helen Hayes Award winner, delivers the most complex performance, conveying a newfound sense of wisdom and direction obtained at the price of much pain and guilt.
Mark K. Anduss's sound design is a nice mix of music and white noise filtered through a computer. Bruce Lindsay's set is a workmanlike representation of a bank office, with open, peripheral spaces for isolated locations. The production certainly looks and sounds fine. But without any heart, it all feels programmed.
Felony, by Christine Axsmith. Directed by Paul MacWhorter. Lighting design by Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Stacey Bond. Through June 27 at Church Street Theater. Call 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Searching for motivation? Kerri Rambow as Harmony in "Felony."