Theater Review: Sweeter than Justice is sweet indeed

St. Pete Beach playwright Robert Lipkin poses a powerful ethical question.

Sweeter Than Justice
Three of five stars
$28-$40. Through May 22. Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.
941-359-0099.

 

A provocative first act and several top performances make Sweeter Than Justice, a new work by St. Pete Beach playwright Robert Lipkin, one of the more interesting plays currently available to area residents. Unfortunately, it’ll take a bit of a drive to get to it: It’s playing at the Cook Theatre in Sarasota’s FSU Center for the Performing Arts. But what you’ll find if you go is a work that, before wandering into some noir-ish musings on the mutability of the justice system, offers some fascinating characters in a real ethical conundrum. Playwright Lipkin, it would seem, is someone to watch.

click to enlarge Rafael Petlock as Joey Donnatucci and Amanda Schlachter as Geanina Palmieri. - Michelle Donner
Michelle Donner
Rafael Petlock as Joey Donnatucci and Amanda Schlachter as Geanina Palmieri.

The melodramatic premise of Justice’s Act One is that the son of a Philadelphia mob boss is accused of a murder he couldn’t have committed — because he was raping an aspiring law student/waitress at the time. This puts the rape victim, Geanina Palmieri, in an unexpectedly commanding position: She can refrain from offering testimony and thus see the rapist convicted of homicide, or she can testify honestly and save his nasty, brutish life. Watching Palmieri (the radiant Amanda Schlacter) work through this dilemma, we find ourselves wondering what course of action we would recommend — and it’s not an easy question. The bad guy (the worrisomely convincing Rafael Petlock) has probably committed a different murder for real, and depends upon his corrupt father to keep him out of prison. The victim’s fiancée, police detective Michael Shapiro (Tom Foley) is so macho, he’ll no doubt risk his own neck by going after the rapist personally — if his lover ever admits to him that she was assaulted. And the mob boss himself (Joe Parra) is wicked enough to kill anyone who appears to be threatening his family. What should Palmieri do in these circumstances if she a) wants justice, b) wants revenge, and c) wants to stay alive?

If the second act, instead of credibly answering this question, veers off into a commentary on just how far the American justice system can be bent; still, the memory of Act One almost satisfies enough. For example, in it Palmieri/Schlacter has a tensely powerful monologue about her state of crisis after the assault, and has the sympathetic help of a Jewish bartender and Holocaust survivor (the likable Don Walker) who is distressed to see her so broken and wants nothing more than to mend her. Then there’s the pleasing caricature of an amoral amateur prostitute (Brianna Larson) whose true significance doesn’t appear until we’ve almost forgotten her; as well as the brief appearance of a priest (Dan Higgs) who may or may not be able to identify the true murderer. Carole Kleinberg directs skillfully on Robert Foti’s fine sets representing a bar and two domiciles, and Seth Berry’s sound design punctuates the play’s ten scenes nicely.

click to enlarge Rafael Petlock as Joey Donnatucci, Dan Higgs as Philip Kaplan and Joseph Parra as Marco Donnatucci. - Michelle Donner
Michelle Donner
Rafael Petlock as Joey Donnatucci, Dan Higgs as Philip Kaplan and Joseph Parra as Marco Donnatucci.

There’s a philosophical clarity to Act One of this unusual play that should make it notable to anyone with the least concern for ethical puzzles. It’s too bad that Act Two doesn’t unfold on the same level, but still Sweeter Than Justice proves that writer Lipkin at his best is capable of real eloquence. I look forward to seeing more of his plays — and hope they’ll turn up on our side of the Skyway as well.

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