Times Theater Critic

"An accused rapist (Ken Roht) is interviewed by a public defender (Peter Lempert), with surprising results."

If "13 Down" were on TV instead of at the Cast Theatre, that might be the listing. Indeed, its first exchange is one you've heard a thousand times on the cop shows.

Defendant: How long is this going to take?

Lawyer: It depends.

But playwright Robert Shrock is delving into areas that even "L. A. Law" might consider a little touchy. The public defender is revealed (too quickly) to be gay. The defendant, although straight, is a narcissist. He can deal with people only by seducing them with his charm.

So the interview--two, actually--becomes a contest of wills. The attorney tries to make his client see the brutality of rape, whether or not the victim "wanted it"--all the while gritting his teeth against his client's appeal.

Meanwhile, the defendant tries to make his defender see the imperatives of desire--i.e., tries to turn him on. The client wins the battle, but loses the war.

There could be an interesting play here, but this one doesn't survive cross-examination. The young man's victory is simply too easy. An experienced lawyer isn't this quickly inveigled into swapping life stories with a client. An ethical lawyer with rape in his history would be especially careful about getting emotionally involved in a rape case.

We're also wondering why neither man seems concerned that a courthouse guard might walk in on them--where is all this supposed to be happening? (Charles Whetzel's set suggests an anteroom in a marble-walled county building.)

The pressure of the outside world isn't felt. That includes the pressure of the lawyer's other cases, something that actor Lempert doesn't convey at all, and the fear of the younger man about what's going to happen to him in prison, something that Roht only mentions.

Rather than a lawyer-client conflict, it might be a confrontation between a fragile psychologist and a devious patient in the privacy of a therapeutic hour. That might be a way for the play to go. The author directed, capably enough. But he needs another eye on the play. "13 Down" (the lawyer likes to do crossword puzzles) plays at 8 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays at the Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave. Closes Oct. 8. (213) 462-0265.

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