Written by Barry Malawer

Directed by Eric Tucker

Like John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT, Barry Malawer’s tough, unflinching drama doesn’t provide any easy answers. The audience must decide for itself what really happened during the play’s pivotal event, and who should bear the guilt.

NYPD officer Rob McDonald (Tom O’Keefe), feels his world turning upside down. He is accused of pushing a teenager out the window of an abandoned building in Washington Heights. Tyler Chapin (offstage) and his friend were throwing rocks at Rob and his partner Ricky (Migs Govea). The kids ran, the two cops gave chase, and in a confusing instant the irreversible incident occurred.  Thankfully, the child, though injured, survived the fall. Even so, Rob will face jail time and public disgrace if he’s found guilty. There were no firearms discharged, no chokeholds or batons used, not even any witnesses. So it really comes down to Rob’s word against Tyler’s. Rob maintains his innocence, but the jury isn’t so easily convinced. Attorney John Jones (Ryan Quinn) masterfully spins the narrative: yet another white cop brutalizing an unarmed black teen. Tyler’s mom Sharonne (Eboni Flowers) is more overwhelmed than indignant. She’d like to see justice done, but most importantly she just wants her son to be okay. As an activist, Jones of course is right: the news cycle abounds with stories of unarmed males – often minors and nearly always black – being killed or injured by police. Something must be done about it. But should Rob be made to pay for society’s problems? As the officer’s ugly history is aired during the trial, his wife Angela (Susannah Millonzi) is tortured by doubts and the bond between them is tested. Eventually Rob himself  has heard the official story so many times, he can no longer rely even on his own memory. What happened in that split second will haunt him for the rest of his life.

There are no courtroom cliches here, no homilies designed to prick the conscience of the audience. Instead, Malawer humanizes his characters by showing their ambiguities. Jones may be true crusader for civil rights, or just a cunning careerist looking for a high-profile win.  Sharrone may be seeking just retribution, or greedily eying a big settlement. Either way, they are all, like Rob, trying to survive, to cope, to find some way to move forward. Under Eric Tucker’s sensitive direction, the ensemble skillfully embodies these compelling contradictions, and navigates the growing weariness and resignation of the characters as they years wear on. John McDermott’s sets, Whitney Locher’s costume design and Joyce Liao’s lighting combine to create a dehumanizing landscape of police stations, courtrooms and prison cells.

As affecting as all this is, however, there is room in DEAD DOG PARK for further development. We only meet the adult Tyler (Jude Tibeau) in a fantasy sequence, and little is revealed about the police culture that keeps putting people like Rob out on the street. Still less is illuminated about the denizens of Dead Dog Park (a real neighborhood in upper Manhattan). Is it a crime-ridden slum in which clashes with law enforcement are commonplace? Or do the Chapins typify the proud working class families who struggle to maintain the integrity of their neighborhoods in the midst of New York’s tsunami of gentrification?  Incidents of the kind depicted here don’t happen in a vacuum. And though Malawer has done a remarkable job of dramatizing the repercussions of a tragic turn of events, his story could be even more resonant still if he put the same energy into examining its causes.

DEAD DOG PARK continues through March 6 at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street New York, New York, Tickets:

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