This review of Eddie Aronoff's Inspector Descending at The Secret Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 5 (2015) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Eddie Aronoff
Directed by Thomas G. Waites
Produced by Shelley Molad
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
Inspector Descending is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Crime & Punishment," written by Eddie Aronoff from the perspective of the Inspector. In the original book, Raskolnikov, a conflicted former student, lives in a tiny, rented room. He refuses all help from his friends and plans to murder and rob Alyona Ivanovna, an unpleasant elderly, pawnbroker and money lender. His motivation comes from the overwhelming sense that he is predestined to kill the old woman by some power outside of himself. After much deliberation, he sneaks into the woman's apartment, where he murders her with an axe. He also kills her half-sister, Lizaveta, who happens to stumble upon the scene of the crime. Shaken by his actions, he manages to steal only a handful of items before he flees unseen and undetected. Raskolnikov then falls into a feverish state and begins to worry obsessively over the murder. As the fever comes and goes in the following days, he behaves as though he wishes to betray himself. He shows strange reactions to whoever mentions the murder of the pawnbroker. In his delirium, he wanders about, drawing more and more attention to himself and his relation to the crime. Raskolnikov eventually meets detective Porfiry (the Inspector in this play), who begins to suspect him of the murder purely on psychological grounds. As they continue to meet, Porfiry becomes increasingly certain of the man's guilt but has no concrete evidence or witnesses with which to back up his suspicion. Furthermore, another man has confessed to committing the crime. Porfiry confronts Raskolnikov with his suspicions and assures him that confession would substantially lighten his sentence. He eventually admits to committing the crime and is sentenced to eight years of penal servitude in Siberia.
In this play set in Moscow in 1868, the Inspector is having an affair with Lizaveta, the younger step-sister of Alyona Ivanovna. Lizaveta has just told him she is pregnant with his child and although the Inspector once loved her and promised to marry her, he is no longer inclined to fulfill his commitment. The Inspector has a dream of Alyona and Lizaveta being axed to death and the audience is strongly led to believe the Inspector did it, because when he "woke up," he is found to have blood on his coat. He is also observed covering up evidence and waiting for an unidentified student to confess. In addition, Lizaveta has no defensive wounds so it appears she knew her assailant. Even the Inspector's assistants suspect him of the crime even after Nikolai, who tried to hang himself and was caught trying to pawn a pair of Lizaveta's earrings, confesses. The noose seems to be tightening around the Inspector's neck until, in the last scene, similar to what happens in the book, Raskolnikov, the conflicted former student, confesses to having committed the crimes.
Inspector Descending is supposed to be a comedy but except for the Flock of Cocks and the opinion that asking a prostitute for permission seems a bit unnecessary (like asking your horse if you can saddle it), I didn't find anything in this play particularly funny. In fact, I perceived it to be a serious drama and was surprised to learn it was intended as a comedy. The added element of allowing the recently deceased to speak and interact with the living, I thought to be quite a clever technique that advanced the story line. Following up with the playwright after the show, he explained he never intended to suggest this play was a "comedy" in the traditional sense of the word. He used the word "comedy" in contrast to "tragedy" as explained on page 142 of Harold Bloom's book on Eugene O'Neill, where it is explained that with respect to comedies, a play has a "comic structure insofar as characters project a mask that shows one image and hides another (as in the case of the Inspector projecting an image of professionalism and piety when in fact he is probably "guilty of everything" in the play except the murder). In tragedy, however, the characters glimpse the underside of their own masks, while comic characters seldom have to confront an unmasked image of themselves."
Included in this work are some philosophical words of wisdom dispensed by the various characters. For example, the Inspector said, "We are at the mercy of everything we haven't experienced and don't know." and 'Happiness is elusive - I'm unhappy with you or without you, but less unhappy with you." The General Prosecutor said, "The question of our age is how to be relevant, how to matter." and "The truth is simply a lie better told." Finally, Zamyatov reflected that you have to admit that "when you do a favor for another person, it's only natural that there is a slight tipping of the balance."
All the actors in this UNFringed Festival 2015 entry at The Secret Theatre were talented and above par in every way. However, the standout performers in this cast of fifteen were Jake Minevich (Zamyatov), Dennis Wit (General Prosecutor), Nicholas Bonaparte (Nikolai/Workman), Cathie Boruch (Alyona), and Hannah Wolfe (Lizaveta). I give the playwright credit for trying to breathe new life into this classic tale. Since this is the first of his works to be publicly staged and produced, I offer him encouragement to continue to get his plays out there before audiences. It is only in this way that Eddie Aronoff will be able to see what works and what doesn't. I wish him well.