Attorney for the Damned
nytheatre.com review by Josh Sherman
March 20, 2008
Attorney for the Damned is designed to be a rock musical case-study that indicts the corrupt justice system through the eyes of an idealistic lawyer who defends the criminally insane. This semi-autobiographical tale has a story and lyrics by Denis Woychuk, the owner of the the KGB bar above the Kraine Theater (where Attorney for the Damned is playing) in the East Village, and apparently draws from his own life as an attorney. Well, truth must be stranger than fiction, because, autobiographical or not, Attorney of the Damned has little plausibility in its plot, dramatic structure, dialogue, or character arcs. Were it not for the genuinely decent music provided by composer/musical director Rob McCulloch and the solid rock voices of the majority of the cast, Attorney for the Damned would have little going for it.
The storyline feels ripped from of an episode of the ill-fated '90s television program Cop Rock. Woychuk's alter-ego is a young, half-Sioux female lawyer named Laura Skyhorse, who is charged with representing two mentally disturbed patients, Garrett Cooke and Sixx, in court against her "frenemy" Sara Vancussy, who is also our narrator. The two cases don't seem to have anything to do with one another, other than to provide the characters opportunities to sing about murder, dismemberment and child rape. There is a subplot involving an egomaniacal doctor who is experimenting with microchip mind-control techniques. Woychuk tries to tie it all together by having Sixx drug and kidnap both lawyers, the judge, and the doctor as his revenge for the ruin that his life has become. Unrealistic plot twists abound in a denouement that involves slave imagery (a shirtless black man in chains), unlikely sex with a mental patient, an even more unlikely lesbian romance, death by electrocution, and accidental pregnancy. Did I mention the show is 90 minutes without intermission?
On the plus side: the voices of the cast range from solid to very good, particularly Denny Blake and Pat Mattingly, who have commanding vocal presence as the two defendants. The band, who play onstage for the entire show, seem to be having a terrific time up there. One touch I enjoyed is the Jurettes (Norma Gomez, Boksim Jeon, Amanda Ochoa) as a '60s girl group ensemble, who add genuinely nice harmony. I just wish that they, and the rest of the cast, were singing lyrics that would better show off their talents.
Director Stephen Vincent Brennan tries to stage the piece as a rock concert a la Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but this has the unfortunate consequence of having characters that do not interact on either the page or the stage. The topics are far too sprawling to allow an audience member to focus on any one character's storyline, making it very difficult to care about the enormous stakes as they are written. In addition, the tone of Attorney for the Damned is all over the place. And there are far too many writer-crutch stereotypes—sleazy lawyer, corrupt judge, mad scientist with a god complex, homicidal killer mental patients—for this to come across as anything less than a melodrama.
I am baffled as to what this production Attorney for the Damned is going for. The central conflict is inherently absurd, which would be fine if it was successful as a comedy—but it does not amuse. In turn, that means that the piece cannot work as a realistic drama because it fails to be believable, no matter how true-life the source material may be. The music has some value to it, but from a dramatic perspective, it would probably be best for the script to go back to the drawing board.