Sunday, November 18, 2001

Kenwood native delves into criminal mind on 'Law & Order'

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After writing about cops catching bad guys, Theresa Rebeck was ready to look at life from the other side of the badge.

        As a consulting producer for NBC's new Law & Order: Criminal Intent (9 p.m. today, Channels 5, 22), the Kenwood native has the opportunity to break away from the just-the-facts-ma'am formula and probe the criminal mind.

        “It's like a writer's dream to be able to figure that stuff out,” says Ms. Rebeck, who wrote today's episode, “The Pardoner's Tale,” inspired by President Clinton's pardon of billionaire Mark Rich.

        Unlike most TV police dramas — including the original Law & Order and NYPD Blue, for which Ms. Rebeck wrote in the 1990s — Criminal Intent opens with the crime being plotted or executed. Then viewers watch Detective Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) try to nail the crooks in the following 55 minutes.

        Tonight, viewers will see a wealthy man in Belize orchestrating the murder of a New York newspaper reporter. Then viewers will watch the detective connect the dots to the governor's mansion.

        “What fascinates me about the criminal mind is its logic,” she says from her home in Brooklyn, not far from the Manhattan studio where NBC's three Law & Order series are shot.

        “Trying to understand the good and bad inside a personality which ultimately turns destructive is fascinating to me.”

        Much of her TV writing has focused on methodical police work. While living in Los Angeles, she wrote for NYPD Blue (1994-97), scripting the episode in which Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) bonded with his new partner, Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits), by singing “Duke of Earl.”

        She also created Total Security, ABC's Jim Belushi drama about a high-tech security firm (1997), and was co-executive producer of ABC's Maximum Bob (1998). Then she took a break to write plays and movies, including the new Catwoman feature film.

        After moving back to New York, she began writing for the newest Law & Order franchise. Tonight's episode is one of 13 filmed last spring in anticipation of writers' and actors' strikes. Now she's working on scripts to be shot when production resumes in January.

        The series is built around Mr. D'Onofrio (Men in Black; Mystic Pizza; Full Metal Jacket; Ed Wood), whose super-smart character “is a modern-day Sherlock Holmes,” she says.

        He's assisted by his partner (Kathryn Erbe), commanding officer (Jamey Sheridan) and the district attorney (Courtney B. Vance). They work for the major case squad, which handles New York's most serious or politically sensitive crimes.

        So how did a nice Catholic girl, a 1976 Ursuline Academy graduate and former St. Anthony Messenger staffer, become an expert on criminal behavior?

        It traces back to her doctorate in Victorian melodrama from Brandeis University.

        “I'm interested in extreme states of mind and action,” she says. “Melodrama functions by pushing people into extraordinarily enormous places, where big, terrible things are done. Crime drama does the same, but by building the psychology more carefully than melodrama.

        “So it doesn't surprise me that I ended up sometimes writing crime,” she says.

        Ms. Rebeck also has written TV comedy for Dream On and Brooklyn Bridge, and the screenplay for Harriet the Spy. Her play, The Family of Mann, won a National Theatre Conference awardin 1994.

        Ms. Rebeck's odd combination of interests — human behavior,crime, comedy and melodrama — helped her nab the job writing Catwoman starring Ashley Judd.

        “They wanted a Catwoman movie with no Batman or Robin, to create a new myth for Catwoman,” she says. “These worlds are so big and so mythic, there's sort of an epic quality. It reminded me of Gothic novels, like Jane Eyre,where the childhood part of the story explains the root of the psychosis or neurosis.”

        Ms. Rebeck enjoys the freedom of moving back and forth from films to plays and TV. She's also writing a one-woman playand a TV pilot with Criminal Intent executive producer Rene Balcer starring Oliver Platt (Counselor Oliver Babish on The West Wing) as a small-town mayor in upstate New York.

        “I'm lucky that I'm flexible enough as a writer to figure out how all three forms work. It's all storytelling,” she says.

        For now, none of her Law & Order scripts will touch on the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, about a mile from her Park Slope home. Her neighborhood fire company lost 12 of 28 firefighters in the buildings' collapse.

        “It's hard to know what the perspective is with things unfolding,” she says.

        One thing that won't change is her address. She's happily relocated in New York so her son, 6, could be closer to his Cincinnati cousins and grandparents, Joan and George Rebeck.

        “I asked my son what he liked best about living back in New York, and he said, "Cincinnati,' ” she says. “I love living in the city. I love filmmaking in New York.”

        She even loves the New York weather. It reminds her of home.

        “I like snow, and the change of seasons. I like rain! I like wearing sweaters when it gets cold,” she says. “Los Angeles didn't suit me. It was just sunny and hot all the time.”

        To her, that's a crime.
       Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:


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