“Minor Demons” is bedeviled by problems that keep it from being anything more than mildly interesting. A solid premise and strong theme (a man must follow his conscience even when he knows his actions will destroy his friends) holds some attention despite the play’s nagging weaknesses.
Some of these shortcomings are the fault of a playwright, Bruce Graham, who shows a consistent tendency in one scene after another to take the lesser of the dramatic choices available. When a main character (a police officer) realizes that he might have been able to save the young girl whose murder sets the play in motion, we wait for a catharsis but instead get a rueful shaking of the head and a change of subject.
The play also suffers from a serious error in casting. Reed Birney fails to convince in the central role of Deke Winters, a high-powered Mafia lawyer who hits a wall of alcoholism and drug abuse that drains his bank account, ruins his career, wrecks his marriage and separates him, probably forever, from his daughter. Winters returns to the small town where he grew up, takes a job with a local law firm and defends a young man accused of a brutal murder. The case pits the attorney against his old friend the cop (Steve Ryan), whose failure to read the suspect his Miranda rights has all but blown the police case.
Birney is fine when playing the lawyer’s low notes but, despite his expensive big city suit, can’t convey the sense that he was ever a courtroom hotshot who could destroy tough FBI agents. When he loses his temper with his client’s thick-headed father, his shouting seems to come from frustrated weakness rather than confident strength.
Director Richard Harden seems to have spent more time working out transitions between scenes than what happens within them. The staging teeters between realism and theatricality, unable to make up its mind which way to go. When the lawyer and cop mop up a flooded basement, their movement is sloppy and half-hearted, with no attempt to convince us that they are really performing the task or enacting some symbolic aspect of their relationship.
Standing out in the cast are Ryan as the cop in over his head; Charlie Hofheimer in a subtle performance as the disturbed young murderer; Robin Haynes as the tightly wound father of the murdered girl; and Murphy Guyer in the small but crucial role of the boy’s emotionally closeted father.