Theater archives

Icy New Hypothesis: Aberrant Biology is Criminal Destiny


Can the most heinous of crimes be explained by neuropsychiatry and thus be excused? British playwright Bryony Lavery explores this theme through a complicated trio: a murderer of children, the mother of one of the victims, and a medical researcher intent on answering the question “Serial killing: a forgivable act?” What joins them is not simply intimacy with the worst of what people are capable of, but the frozen emotional terrain that allows even the most upstanding of us to lapse momentarily into wickedness.

If Lavery’s subject is of perennial interest, the theatrical lens she employs makes everything seem overly familiar. No new ground is struck in this sometimes metaphorically labored excavation of “the Arctic frozen sea that is the criminal brain.” But obviously we’ve come for drama, not eureka moments of psychopathology. Unfortunately, Lavery structures her piece undramatically—characters introduce their plights via long monologues and are allowed to interact only after their perspectives have been determined. Early on, Frozen tips its hand: Evil is both banal and enigmatic, and the ensuing talk (action would be an imprecise term for it) merely closes the deal.

Doug Hughes’s solidly acted production, however, goes a long way toward masking the play’s weakness. Swoosie Kurtz offers a stunning portrait of a mother whose grief slow-boils over decades, never totally evaporating even when she’s urged by her family to confront and absolve her daughter’s killer. Brian F. O’Byrne chillingly incarnates the convicted felon, rendering him at once psychotically twisted and tragically recognizable. As the academic scientist with a guilty secret of her own, Laila Robins acquits herself—if not her character’s tendentiously sympathetic theory—with conviction.