PRAYER BOOK

If overheated histrionics is your bag, Dingo Troupe's production of A Prayer for My Daughter delivers a fix to satisfy the most insatiable melodrama junkie.

The first play by Thomas Babe, a protege of the late Public Theater impresario Joseph Papp, this potboiler premiered in the mid-Seventies, so it is a bit of a stretch to think of it as the kind of cutting-edge play to which the Dingos have dedicated themselves.

For most of the first act, Babe's writing of this pseudorealistic cop show is competently efficient, and on the order of premium prime-time-television drama such as, say, NYPD Blue. To be sure, there are hints of purple passages to come, but for the most part, four gifted actors set about making you believe the playwright's premise of four unsavory characters who spend a night together in self-discovery and despair.

Two tired but tough cops tackle the interrogation of two punks arrested for offing an old woman in the precinct. We soon learn the cops are little better than the "human garbage" they have arrested, one taking a pop of heroin under his rolled-down sock while the other bolts down five shots of Wild Turkey. The cops place a bet on which punk pulled the trigger, anticipating with relish the beatings and power plays they plan to induce a confession.

The first stink of plot manipulation comes when a phone call (!) reveals that offstage, the older cop's daughter is threatening to commit suicide. Babe is unable to invent any believable pretext for the cop to prefer beating up the junkies over rescuing his daughter, so before long, the actors are marooned in a pumped-up situation that reeks of phony motivation.

Babe coyly flirts with the scintillation of forbidden perversion, as each man is forced to fondle or be fondled. "There is a woman inside me," confides the oily killer, gingerly probing the virility of one cop, as he sets up his young lover, the junkie, to take the rap. Both police officers are eventually required to recognize that their macho appearances are transcended by closeted desires. Such wishful thinking is the product of a sexually frustrated imagination.

The young junkie is referred to as the "daughter" of the bearded pervert, as the writer strains to pull together all the symbols of a play laden with the darker, deeper burdens of Krafft-Ebing. By the time we hear the title line, we are prayerfully hopeful the end of the play is near.

The actors who have worked in such detail to establish the characters in the first act are saddled with poetry, extravagant gestures and unbelievable cathartic epiphanies in the second act. Abandoned by logic, they begin to shout and emote, desperately trying to convince themselves that what is required to happen in the playwright's fevered fantasy could ever happen in reality. The director, Victoria Safriet, has failed her fine cast by permitting or encouraging these excesses, no doubt puzzled about how to make the second-act plot twists plausible.

Ken Love's cop has a "Type A" personality on the verge of a heart attack from the opening lines. Shawn B. Smith curls credibly into narcosis when he is not waving a pistol wildly. Mike Fenlason is mysterious and slimy as the degenerate offender, and Stephen Barnes has created a finely observed characterization, filled with complex, dimensional behavior. His only flaw is that he often seems not to know what to do with his hands.

By way of retraction, I must take this opportunity to apologize to Skye Ayers, whom I misidentified last week as "excruciatingly untalented" in my review of Danton's Death. I belatedly realized that the huge cast was listed alphabetically, not in order of appearance, so I mistook Skye Ayers, and wrongly blamed her for the work of one of her inferiors.

 
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