Nazi Skinhead Buddy Flick 

Traveling Jewish Theatre creates tense but occasionally strained legal drama.

Canadian playwright David Gow is well aware that skinhead violence is a sober and serious subject, and he takes pains to address it in a fair and balanced way so that there's no danger of anyone getting the wrong message. In that sense, Cherry Docs is an important play about an important topic. But although Traveling Jewish Theatre gives it a smart staging for its West Coast premiere under the direction of TJT cofounder Naomi Newman, the play itself could stand to develop the medium for its message.

A middle-aged liberal Jewish lawyer is appointed to represent a white-supremacist skinhead who kicked an Indian man so brutally that he died of the injuries sustained in the beating. You can see where this is going. Toward hilarity? Not so much. They have to work together to assemble a defense and try to get at what motivated the defendant to do such a thing, and in the process learn something about themselves. It's like a buddy flick except that they hate each other, but such animosity is actually a staple of buddy movies, so make of that what you will.

The buddy-flick analogy, though tongue-in-cheek, captures what's best in the piece. It's a two-person play alternating between parallel monologues and more naturalistic scenes in which lawyer and client meet to berate each other and hash out a strategy. The verbal sparring is where all the tension lies, despite the attempts of each to express how tense they are in their respective soliloquies.

The show visually brightens as well in these moments, as simulated fluorescent lights replace the dim illumination of the two inner worlds. The music by David Molina brings out some of the ominous air that is otherwise reined in, juxtaposing creepy industrial noise and reverent Jewish song. Richard Olmstedt's set is simple -- a spare office, a bench for the cell, a table for Danny at home -- keeping the focus on the sharp acting, where it belongs.

TJT artistic director Aaron Davidman has a beautifully casual poise in early scenes as lawyer Danny, baiting skinhead Mike with the easy superiority of a man with nothing but contempt for his client, relishing having someone at his mercy who would have no mercy for him were the balance of power reversed. As Mike, artistic associate Eric Rhys Miller rises to the challenge, if not the bait, with cagey intelligence and exaggerated deference.

But when Mike is alone in his cell, talking about his white-supremacist tattoos or his stomping boots that give the play its title, he does so with a childish smugness. Where he should be menacing, he simply makes you want to slap him upside his bald head and tell him to stop acting the fool. This hint of nyah-nyah is surely intentional: there's no danger of sitting through this play without getting the message that he could be a good kid had he not fallen into the habit of blaming others -- or rather the Other -- for his problems. But it also has the effect of minimizing his hatred and his crime.

While it's far too easy to reduce neo-Nazi skinheads to monsters and thus avoid getting at the root societal problems that influence their behavior (but certainly neither cause nor excuse it), Cherry Docs errs in the other direction, daintily avoiding too much detail of Mike's beating a guy to death so as not to make the audience not buy his repentance. Gow needn't have worried, because that's not why we don't buy the new Mike. It's pleasant enough to see Mike turning over a new leaf, partly because it's so much nicer to be nice, but mostly because Miller's portrayal of haunted regret is far more affecting and more convincing than his fanatical menace ever was. But it's unsatisfying because the change in him is abrupt and unearned.

Davidman's Danny has a bit more to work with in his private moments -- the outside world, for one thing, which begins to take on a more sinister cast as the wall between his and Mike's worldviews erodes. At his leisure he is such the very model of the self-satisfied upper-middle-class liberal that it's hard not to want his comfort and complacency shaken up nearly as much as Mike's crazy conspiracy theories. Not to worry.

Unfortunately, he also has an unwieldy and not very clear metaphor about a needle and thread to beat to death, in which we're all threads in a prayer shawl or something. At least Mike's bit about how white males are like feet -- tender parts of the body that we always walk on because they're used to it -- is novel, and said only once.

Given the kind of play this is, it's necessary for Danny to go through a process of destruction and discovery similar to Mike's, even if the play can't quite justify it. When he explodes into a rage in a scene involving a chair set at their desk for the prophet Elijah (a great if unlikely detail), it seems out of nowhere because it is out of nowhere. It's just time to get cracking on his dark night of the soul.

That said, it could be argued that he has been dwelling there all along. The plot device of Danny forcing his client to assemble his own defense is of course meant to make Mike finally face what he did, but on the face of it the strategy is so ludicrously far removed from reality -- unless Canadian defendants really do all the work -- that the only way to justify it is to posit that Danny is playing a very sadistic trick on Mike all along. There's a hint of that in the script, but it's an unusual moment of subtlety in a script that cries out constantly to be understood.


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