Sometimes laughter is the best alternative to crying. And who needs talking when you can rock out instead?
Welcome to Attorney For The Damned, a brazenly funky, 90-minute romp through the criminal justice system written by Denis Woychuk, LAW ’84. Taking the lemons-to-lemonade approach to an extreme, Woychuk took 10 years of representing the criminally insane in New York City and wrote a memoir about it in 1996. Now the book is grist for a rock musical of the same name.
Attorney For The Damned opened March 13 at the 99-seat Kraine Theater in the former Ukrainian Labor Home owned by Woychuk, which also houses his KGB Bar. The production is expected to run Wednesdays through April 30 at the East Village landmark. Sitting on a couch in the building’s fifth-floor office, Woychuk said that the play, a sort of Tommy meets Silence of the Lambs, grew from his attempt to write a follow-up to his memoir. When his agent asked him to rewrite it, Woychuk began fiddling with the piano his children were taking lessons on, and eventually came up with lyrics such as, “Wore her finger on a chain around my neck; I know it’s romantic but what the heck. I’m sentimental, sentimental about love.”
Unlike most portraits of criminal insanity in Attorney, such as an accused pedophile whose victim commits suicide before the defendant can be convicted, the finger hanging on a necklace is fictional. Rather, it’s a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the tendency of body art aficionados to pierce and tattoo increasingly adventurous places. Amputating a digit, Woychuk said with a touch of mirth, could be the next step.
It’s that kind of sensibility that allows the play, which is told mostly through song by a 12-member cast, to tackle a serious subject in an entertaining way.
“I’m not here to make a didactic lesson about the nature of law; I want to entertain. But I also want to be legally accurate,” Woychuk said. “I want people to understand that mental patient does not mean vampire; it does not mean werewolf. Just because you’re psychotic doesn’t mean you’re bad.”
The play, which is directed by Steven Vincent Brennan and features music by Rob McCulloch, follow the story of a young defense lawyer named Laura Skyhorse who secures the freedom of a pedophile and another who hears the voices of dead people. In a twist of events, Skyhorse and other court officials are kidnapped by the pedophile, who is intent on judging them as he himself was judged. As a defense attorney, she agonizes over the fact that she may be hurting others by doing her job, but as the plot follows several twists and turns, the larger question, “What makes a hero?” is brought to the fore.
Along the way, audiences are treated to musical numbers in which the pit band’s bass player joins the cast to testify as an expert witness, and a mental patient sings, “I don’t need no medication,” to the tune of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are self-referential winks and nods—during what would be intermission, the district attorney character invites the audience to join her after the show for drinks at KGB, and a “critic” interrupts the show midway to babble about “East Village [junk]” before storming back out—but it never veers into the realm of pure camp.
“I’ve done something I haven’t really seen much in musicals here, and I’m hoping it’s going to work,” Woychuk said. “Typically in musicals, you know who the bad guy is from Page 1. I am deliberately toying with the audience’s perceptions, so that they change during the course of the show.”
Woychuk is cautious about labeling the show as a tribute to, or cautionary tale about, his former profession, which he left to become a corporate lawyer before devoting his energy to KGB and the building’s two theaters.
“In a way, it’s a loss of innocence,” he said. “It’s the growing up of an attorney, the maturation of an attorney in the process, and one of her lines is, ‘Who’s going to help the mentally ill if not me.’”
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