Regional theaters yield worthwhile plays

Self Defense Play by Joe Cacaci. Directed by Arvin Brown. The American Theater Exchange, which brings productions from around the United States to New York audiences, has opened its 1987 season with ``Self Defense.''

Joe Cacaci's disturbing drama about a troubled public defender had its world premi`ere last January at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, which is responsible for the intensely animated production at the Joyce Theater.

Attorney Mickey Reisman (Michael Wikes) practices law as a public defender in the lower-depths arena of New York City's criminal justice system. A man of compassion, commitment, and pragmatic idealism, 35-year-old Reisman represents malefactors who lack the means to hire an attorney but whose cases can prove complex and sometimes intractable.

Mr. Cacaci introduces the spectator to Reisman's world with a pretrial interview scene in which a foul-mouthed theft suspect (Steven Marcus) roundly berates his court-appointed attorney. The episode is comic and devastating.

In a succession of similar scenes, Reisman attempts to prepare the cases of two young men charged as child molesters - one of whom is mentally ill and the other, a Hispanic, is innocent of the crime.

Important in themselves, the interviews also serve as background for Mr. Cacaci's aim of exploring the relationship between Mickey Reisman and the district attorney staff with whom the public defender must negotiate and, in the final analysis, confront as an adversary. The sometimes complex negotiation and maneuverings can challenge the spectator as well as the characters involved. The action of the play proceeds, however, entirely outside the courtroom.

The playwright fills out his scenario with incidental vignettes and digressions. These involve Reisman's good-natured, food faddist brother (Lewis Black); an irascible district attorney (Charles Cioffi), whose chronic dudgeon is further aggravated by city hall's current image-polishing campaign; an assistant district attorney (Julia Newton), whose cocaine habit comes to light and destroys her career; and a fellow public defender (Paul Austin), who tries to point out the system's merits to an unconvinced Reisman.

In the course of his dialogues, Mr. Cacaci is probing the conflicting principles (or lack of them), the politics and plea bargaining, that complicate the criminal justice system.

He dramatizes its uses and abuses as well as the blurring of the borderline between the execution of justice and the enforcement of the law.

The performance staged by Long Wharf artistic director Arvin Brown responds to the psychological and emotional drives of these courthouse regulars and casuals. Mr. Wikes brings a genuine depth of conviction to the role of the dedicated Reisman, whose demonstrated concern for his clients may or may not prove equal to the strain and disillusionment that gradually overtake him. The playwright leaves the question hanging. Besides the players already mentioned, ``Self Defense'' is well served in incidental roles by Kevin O'Rourke and Jose Santana as the accused molesters and Kevin Nova Davis as an interning law student assigned to Reisman.

Designer Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's architecturally functional setting accommodates the play's numerous cinema-like scenes. Ronald Wallace lighted the production and Bill Walker designed the costumes.

Besides opening with the work of an impressive new playwright, the American Theater Exchange will be providing a New York showcase for three other representative nonprofit institutional theaters. When ``Self Defense'' completes its run on June 28, the season will continue with the following local premi`eres and company debuts: an adaptation of Charles Dickens's ``Hard Times'' from the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (June 29-July 5 at Theatre 890); George Orwell's ``1984'' from Philadelphia's Wilma Theater (July 13-Aug.1 at the Joyce); Romulus Linney's ``Holy Ghosts'' from the San Diego Repertory Theatre (Aug. 3-29 at Theatre 890).

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