By: Darryl Reilly
Including me there were 28 people at the Wednesday matinee on July 1, 2015, of the 11,568th performance of Perfect Crime. This murder mystery thriller opened Off-Broadway on April 18, 1987, and has played at several theaters since, earning it the distinction as the longest-running play in New York City history.
Many theater writers arrogantly boast of having never seen it and the theater message board All That Chat periodically has vehement threads denouncing its paid flyer distributors at the TKTS line in Times Square for “deceiving tourists” into seeing it.
As a native New Yorker and a long-time ardent theatergoer, I somehow hadn’t seen it. I took it for granted as one of those mystifying show business anomalies I would never actually go to unless it announced that it was closing. Like Oh! Calcutta!
The play is set in the present with updated references to cell phones and DVRs, in the well-appointed sitting room in a secluded upscale Connecticut estate. Psychiatrist Margaret Thorne Brent lives there with her British psychiatrist husband W. Harrison Brent. Due to a series of murders, police inspector James Ascher comes onto the scene. Also caught up in the action is one of Ms. Brent’s patients, Lionel McAuley.
Last month the show received some press attention due to new cast member Hugh Hysell. I have long been aware of the jovial Mr. Hysell as the head of The Men Event, a NYC gay networking organization. He warmly presides over professional meet up events at various venues. As he was credited as a producer of the Broadway production of Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, he is thus a Tony Award-winning producer. He also has had a varied career as an actor regionally and in New York City.
His casting in the show piqued my curiosity enough to pay $33.50 through TDF to finally see it despite the perpetual derision by theater snobs. That it holds several records was also enticing. Plus there was the gnawing fascination to find out whether it was a bad as its reputation. It’s not. It’s a convoluted but engrossing yarn with shades of Columbo.
Mr. Hysell plays the henpecked husband, businessman, and therapy patient Lionel McAuley. His performance is in the spirit of Anthony Perkins. Intense, true to the material, and due to the situations he’s placed in, he is at times very funny but never ridiculous.
One of the intriguing lures of the show is to see Catherine Russell who created the role of Margaret Thorne Brent in 1987. Having played all but four performances, she is in the Guinness Book of World Records for this feat. Lithe, blonde, and animated, her delivery is emphatic and she seems like the character. Her performance is energetic and it was definitely not a case of phoning it in. Since the audience was mostly packed into the first three rows of the 200-seat theater we could see her varying facial expressions up close.
As the laconic Inspector Ascher, Richard Shoberg has the wily assurance of a film noir detective of the type played by Dana Andrews, Robert Ryan, and Sterling Hayden. It’s a marvelous low-key turn that is simultaneously dramatic and comic.
Whether wearing a tuxedo or a red velvet smoking jacket, Jack Koening displays the requisite grandeur and histrionic precision as the British husband, W. Harrison Brent. He marvelously recalls the charm and presence of Michael York.
Patrick Robustelli appears on video to great effect as David Bruer the host of a local public access cable television talk show. He interviews Margaret about her new book with all of the amateurish gusto that such self-financed fringe entertainment figures invariably have.
No matter how hyperbolic the situations get, this talented cast plays it totally straight and never descends into camp or condescension to the audience.
Playwright Warren Manzi wrote Perfect Crime after graduating from the Yale School of Drama in 1980. The play is structured in two acts with seven scenes bearing titles such as “Tuesday Afternoon 2:10 PM.” Though not in the same league as the legendary theatrical thrillers of the past such as Angel Street, Dial M for Murder, Sleuth, and Deathtrap, it’s a credible addition to the genre. The dénouement is a dizzying series of semi-outlandish revelations that are imparted rather briskly so that the spoiler guide on the show’s website was very helpful later on in clarifying some complex plot points. Still, even without further research one could fathom what transpired.
Director Jeffrey Hyatt has paced everything crisply with spooky flourishes. These include striking blackouts, gunfire, moody sound effects, and chiming gongs with the excellent assistance of sound designer David Lawson. The actors often deliver their dialogue in the staccato rhythm characteristic of detective stories. Presumably Mr. Hyatt has been back a few times to fine tune the production in the last 28 years.
Scenic designer Jay Stone’s well-detailed set is a timeless vision of Connecticut affluence. The thin wood walls that occasionally shake slightly when a door is slammed add a quirky dimension.
In addition to a suitably rumpled look for the police inspector, costume designer Nancy Bush’s work also includes several stylish black ensembles for Ms. Russell, as well as a sleek silvery dress for her to wear in the climax.
Perfect Crime can be enjoyed for what it is, a hokey thriller that miraculously became an institution. The noteworthy and alluring performance by leading lady Catherine Russell and the very fine work of a committed cast enhances it considerably.
Perfect Crime (open run)
Anne L. Bernstein Theater at The Snapple Theater Center
1627 Broadway / 210 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-921-7862 or visit http://www.perfect-crime.com
Running time: two hours with one intermission