In “Criminal Acts,” playwright Kim Merrill focuses on the hot-button issue of violence in high schools and colleges. Merrill has a firm grip on the subject, and her play bristles with flinty dialogue, but it cries out for a better beginning and end.
The play concerns the mugging of a high school teacher, Brian (Patrick Brinker), and his wife, Julie (Sarah Knapp), that is meant as a prank. The perpetrator is a vengeful senior scholarship student, Moot (John McCarthy), who received a failing grade. The incident is meant to scare the teacher, but it goes sour when the educator is wounded by an errant gunshot and the wife is sexually assaulted by the student’s manipulative school pal Topper (Derek Richardson).
These events take place before the play begins. The facts unfold when Moot expresses repentance and confesses his guilt to the too-forgiving and naive teacher. In fact it’s Topper, who smugly gloats that “some people never pay,” who is revealed to be the true menace to society, and Richardson invests the character with a glib, chilly edge.
The play’s epilogue is just a bit too tidy. A happy ending with cooing high school teens does little to resolve the troubling issues at stake. If the playwright is suggesting society’s complete indifference, her blunt coda comes as an elusive and disturbing finale.
Though a tad long in the tooth to play the troubled teenager, McCarthy gives a searing account of the remorseful Moot. But pert Tina Frantz, as Topper’s pliant girlfriend, serves as little more than an attractive sounding board for Moot’s escalating frustration. Knapp turns Julie’s potent confession of her victimization into a harrowing revelation.
While the pivotal action occurs offstage, Susan Fenichell’s crisply fluent staging makes the horror of the moment and its troubling aftermath vividly real and disturbing. The presence of a floor design resembling a target serves as an ominous centerpiece for the simple, functional set.