In a recent essay in the Village Voice, scorched-earth dramatist David Mamet noted that he had long held the unexamined belief that people were basically good at heart; on reflection (including a look at his own work), he had to correct himself and observe that, under the right conditions, people "can behave like swine." ("This, indeed, is not only a fit subject," he added, "but the only subject of drama.")
What he said. But playwright Bryony Lavery, in her serial-killer play Frozen, juggles an extra ball in the air.
Is he sick or just twisted? Linda Kelsey, Terry Hempleman, and Karen Landry, from left
Using brain specialist Agnetha (Linda Kelsey) as a mouthpiece, she ponders where to locate the line between evil and illness. If criminality is the result of pathology, in other words, the concepts of penance and retribution might become shallow, meaningless, or misplaced.
Well, we're all doing time for one thing or another, but Lavery lays massive levels of punishment on her characters. When we meet Agnetha, she's howling a primal scream into her briefcase, having just lost her longtime colleague and perhaps squeeze. We next meet Nancy (Karen Landry), who describes the clanky rhythm of her family home with the sort of fond yet profound irritation known only to parents. The action comes together when Nancy sends her young daughter off to her grandmother's house on an errand; it would be the last time she would ever see her.
Fate's cruel hand is provided here by Ralph (Terry Hempleman), an inarticulate loner who describes indignities from his landlady with flat fury, then goes on about his "base of operations" (a shed where he takes his victims) before enacting the luring of Nancy's daughter into his van. Horror follows.
Soon Agnetha travels to England (where all the action takes place), and after Ralph is captured she sets about attempting to prove her theory that murderous behavior is the result of brain injury or abnormality. By this point we're almost an hour into the show, and it marks the first time any of these characters actually speak to one another. Director James Cada has fine acting talent to work with here, though Lavery's device of building the first stretch of this show out of monologues directed at the audience begins to grate like a car alarm at four in the morning. As a structural gambit, it verges on the perverse.
Eventually, we are treated to some actual interaction, and matters improve. Kelsey and Hempleman put on a clinic as doctor and patient, with Agnetha's fascination growing and Ralph's moral vacuum reaching a nadir when he declares that his chief complaint with the world is that it outlaws raping and murdering young girls (this comes after his impassioned elegy for his meticulously catalogued collection of kiddy porn). Hempleman delicately applies extra slime to his character when Ralph attempts one of the more distasteful jailhouse seductions imaginable (even if you have a pretty good imagination for such things).
Ralph's damaged, icy inhumanity is finally cracked through when Nancy arrives at the prison, tells him she's forgiven him, and shows him photographs of the girl he murdered. Hempleman and Landry are tossing psychic cinder blocks at one another here, with Ralph glancing coldly at each photo until some semblance of the reality he's wrought finally bears down upon him. Hempleman to this point has been brave in his repugnance, and Landry matches him with a fine mix of compassion and hidden, latent vengeance.
One ends up wondering: If Ralph's unspeakable crimes came about because of the damage life doled out to him (Agnetha's assertion), are our own more mundane transgressions similarly the fruit of our own structural failings? But here we're carrying Lavery's water for her; this is a work content to mete out the banality of outsized horror without drawing it down to the scale of the everyday. This production digs as deep as it can into this stuff, with considerable craft, but finally we don't gain much insight into our own little rottenness, or the calculus of crime and culpability we weigh in our own crimes and misdemeanors.