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Murder mystery alert: Some devilish scheming and startling plot twists are lying in wait for unsuspecting audiences in Murderer, which opened recently at the Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables. Theatergoers may also be surprised by some rough language as well as explicit violence and nudity, decidedly a departure from the usual Playhouse fare. Anthony Shaffer's lurid thriller centers on one Norman Bartholomew, a painter whose comfortable English country life is spiced up by a very kinky hobby: He's an aficionado of crime history who revels in working out how killers did their grisly work. His love life is also notable: He's at odds with his hypercritical wife, a successful, hard-driving professional who's less than wowed by his artistic output. She's also on to his affair with a far less demanding mistress, Millie. Norman's fantasy world and his unhappy reality merge when he contemplates putting his hobby's techniques to a real-life test.
Most playgoers are familiar with Anthony Shaffer, who died last fall, but often confuse him with his twin brother, Peter, the noted author of Amadeus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus. Peter Shaffer crafts plays that feature complicated, multidimensional characters in inventive, original narratives. Anthony, a former attorney and advertising copywriter, wrote chiefly in one conventional genre, the English mystery thriller. His first hit, Sleuth, was a phenomenon that critics initially pooh-poohed (Lawrence Olivier dismissed it as a "piece of piss"). The naysayers received their comeuppance when Sleuth ran in the West End for 2359 performances, then for another 2000-plus on Broadway, where it won a Tony. It was then made into a successful film starring, guess who, Lawrence Olivier, who probably did not dismiss his Oscar nomination for the film version.
Murderer resembles Sleuth in its clever plot twists, but it lacks the other play's character development and underlying meaning: a struggle between youth and maturity. In Murderer, Norman is only nominally a painter -- a generic leading role. And the other characters -- the wife, the mistress, and a suspicious police inspector -- are strictly stereotypes. For fans of murder mysteries, all of this is irrelevant. The point is the many surprises in the story. Here Shaffer delivers in spades, with a plot that's very, very clever. But for the more skeptical, and here I must reveal that I am one of these, all of this seems more than a little silly. For starters, Murderer reduces the act of killing to an intellectual puzzle with next to no emotional or psychological consequence. And there aren't many motivations. Norman, for example, hates his wife and wants to kill her. Why? Don't bother to ask. He just does. Then there's the convention of the lone police inspector who comes to snoop around the house. When was the last time a cop ever soloed on a case?
Never mind, you either love this stuff or you don't. The Playhouse's artistic director, David Arisco, clearly does, and so his staging is good, making this particularly complicated project look effortless. The production features more than a few visual tricks and effects: a smoking oven, a fully functioning bathtub, and remarkable use of live-video broadcast that augments the multilevel main set; while the action continues on the main stage, a second-level bathroom is in full view via video screen.
Arisco has assembled a formidable cast, headlined by Tom Wahl as Norman Bartholomew. Wahl, a veteran leading man with many local appearances, has a spare, efficient acting style that's well showcased in the play's long opening sequence. For fear of giving away too many secrets, I can't reveal what happens in that opening, but suffice it to say that it's a tour de force for Wahl: a wordless, yet very telling scene that relies entirely on the actor's thoughts and reactions. The able cast also includes Pamela Roza as Norman's waspish wife Elizabeth, Stephanie McNeil as Millie, and John Felix as the methodical police inspector. Arisco's regular production team, scenic designer Gene Seyffer and costume designer Mary Lynne Izzo, are joined by a newcomer, Patrick Tennant, who designed the lights. All deliver fine work, especially Seyffer, who also created the many stage effects. Shaffer spices up his story with a lot of activity in and around the bathtub, occasioning several sequences when both Roza and McNeil strip down to complete nudity. The effect isn't sensational, it's natural, but it gives rise to the question: What does Norman have to complain about? He's having trouble managing two beautiful women. Gee, pal, life's tough. But is it cause to want to kill anyone?
While Murderer plays onstage, another spine-tingling drama is playing just off -- the show's complex technical support is a thriller in itself. The video sequences, which are filmed live, require a separate bathroom set just offstage. They also require steam rising from the bathtub, enough running water for a drowning scene, drainage from the tub, and more than a few quick changes and switcheroos. The tight quarters backstage mean that every corner, every step has been carefully measured. They also mean that the cast and the production staff -- costumers, stage hands, prop people -- all are carefully choreographed backstage so no one runs into each other.
Then there's the matter of the live video. Arisco explains: "Gene [Seyffer] figured out how to mount our projector in the floor of the stage, bounce the projection off a mirror and then onto the set. The projector is hooked up to the offstage camera. It's incredibly complicated but we've tried to think through each possible calamity and prepare contingency plans for everything."
There's a lot to think about. The smoke machine used for the hot-stove effect must be moved during the performance to produce steam in the bathroom scenes. The actors have costume changes to contend with. The water in the bathtub scenes, 25 gallons of it, can't splash on certain costumes or on the set floor, which would present safety problems. But Arisco and company clearly relish these challenges and look forward to more. "Gene rolls his eyes at this, but I really would like to do an Aykbourne two-play project, House and Garden, which features the same cast performing both plays simultaneously in two separate theaters. We could do this using the main stage and our upstairs theater. But in order to do it, the actors must run back and forth from one show to the other, with a maximum of 90 seconds travel time...." Arisco stops talking and starts thinking. Right on cue, Seyffer's eyes start rolling.
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