A police detective seeks to solve a brutal double homicide without a shred of evidence — and sets himself the task of touching the conscience and saving the soul of the tormented young killer.
It's a riveting story that probes the nature of good and evil and the sometimes blurry distinctions between enemies and allies. Why, then, in the stage adaptation currently running at Center Stage, does there seem to be so little at stake?
During Wednesday's opening night performance, the audience was at enough of an emotional distance that some occasionally giggled at lines not intended to be funny, such as, "I might be a little insane."
And that's too bad, because the idea behind Curt Columbus' and Marilyn Campbell's adaptation held tons of promise: Take Fyodor Dostoevsky's sprawling, more than 500-page novel populated by dozens of characters and distill it into a 90-minute theater piece for just three actors.
The result wouldn't be a strict replication of the novel, but its pared-down essence. After surgery that radical, could there be even one word of excess verbiage? Stripping away so many subplots would surely pick up the pace, wouldn't it?
The answers, unfortunately, are yes to the first question and no to the second.
Part of the problem is the script. Too little action and too much exposition, particularly in the first half, is used to bring the audience up to speed about past events.
The characters spout too many speeches along the lines of: "I ran into your father the other day when he was drunk," and "Please explain your theory that extraordinary people are above the law."
Now, that last idea is central to "Crime and Punishment." It's absolutely key, and I'd be hard-pressed to suggest a way to dramatize it. But the longer the actors pontificate, the more members of the audience drift mentally out the door.
With the character of the impoverished student Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's novel gets the psychology of adolescents just right — their narcissism, their peculiar mix of grandiosity and monstrous insecurity.
But actor Eric Feldman unfortunately has been miscast in the lead role of the young man whose search for a higher truth leads him to murder an elderly pawnbroker and her sister.
Feldman's great strength is his ease on stage. But the actor seems so much on an even keel that the audience never believes for a moment that he is unstable, or capable of the feverish highs and desperate lows that bedevil the student.
And as a result, Raskolnikov's two key relationships, with the police inspector and the self-sacrificing prostitute, Sonia, never ring true.
John Leonard Thompson, who plays Detective Porfiry (and several other roles), is appropriately authoritative, but his portrayal lacks both the wiliness that his character needs to trap his brilliant prey and his compassion.
When Porfiry calls Raskolnikov "dear boy", it's partly a 19th-century anachronism and partly patronizing — and partly because he means it. He genuinely grows to care about the welfare of his youthful antagonist, and if the audience doesn't believe that, we'll never understand why Raskolnikov confesses to him.
Lauren Culpepper does her best to add complexity to the role of the saintly Sonia, who walks the streets to earn money to feed her siblings. But there isn't much in the role for her to work with.
Because so much of the action is psychologically driven, this is a play that needs an intimate setting to thrive. The Head Theater's current configuration into a cabaret — with tables and an open bar — creates a subliminal nightclub vibe that doesn't do this particular piece any favors.
Janice Pytel's costumes are a jumble of period (for Raskolnikov and Sonia) and modern (for Porfiry). The mishmash doesn't get in the audience's way, but it also doesn't elucidate the plot or the characters.
Colin Bills apparently designed the lighting to reflect Raskolnikov's mental state as it fluctuates from murky and confused to a crystalline clarity. But too often, the actors' faces end up being plunged into shadow at the precise moment we're trying our hardest to connect with their characters.
Only Walt Spangler's set is an unequivocal success.
Initially, it appears spartan and utilitarian, containing merely an unsupported door, a bed and a steep metal staircase leading from the stage floor to the ceiling.
But Spangler pulls a nice visual sleight of hand that literally opens up the play for the audience. Suddenly, Raskolnikov's world becomes both more confined and more unfettered.
It is a trick that no novel could ever pull off, and yet it enhances our understanding of Dostoevsky's story. It's magic, pure and simple.
If only this production had more of it.
If you go
"Crime and Punishment" runs through May 15 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $15-$45. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org for show times.