What is a mystery inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma? A Winston Churchill question from 1939 aptly fits a play with music set in 1924 that toys at being a murder mystery. As a play with music Who Murdered Love? doesn’t work. As a play without music, it doesn’t work as well. It is Dadaism with Surrealist overtones, and Surrealism with Dadaist overtones, if anyone in the audience knows what Dada or Surreal means.
Who Murdered Love? by Lissa Moira and Richard West is a murder mystery with music about the conflict between the Dadaist and Surrealist art movements in 1924. The goal of the play, as stated by Moira, is to show how the “…petty jealousies and resentments” of the artists are a reflection of all the ills of society up to and including the present day. The result is a theatrical pastiche of the Dadaist/Surrealist period.
Directed by Moira, the play is centered on the three main characters, “Sleepy” Sam Speed (John David West), Sam’s office manager and maybe his girlfriend, Gail Friday (Rori Nogee), and his sex-obsessed junior detective, Everett Greene (Chase Wolfe). They are attempting to solve a mystery surrounding the disappearance and possible murder of a man named DaDa Love. Their client is a sexy, blond heiress named Honey Potts, played with over-the-top sexuality by Alisa Ermolaev.
The Dada art movement of the early 20th century is made into a character named DaDa Love (Ejyp Johnson). He is the charismatic embodiment of the Dadaist world and champion against the Surrealist artists vying to become the preeminent movement. It is this character that the mystery of the show is centered on; is he alive or dead?
The musical numbers, with music by Richard West and lyrics by Lissa Moira, are a mixed bag, with some working and others not so much. For example, “Oh No, She’s A Blond” sets the scene for the encounter between Honey Potts and Everett Greene but doesn’t work, given the dialogue that follows. However, songs in the later dream sequences help define the strangeness of the whole event, such as the ensemble singing the “Green Fairy Song.” Later, a clever song parody, “My Heart Belongs to DaDa” (Cole Porter and Lissa Moira), focuses on Darcel Du Camp (Jef Canter), while “The Arbiter of Art” defines André Ranton’s (William Broderick) view of surrealism, and “The Countess Analise” (Louisa Bradshaw) is a biographical song for the Countess.
The production number that starts the action is meant to introduce the audience to DaDa Love and a dream-like alternate reality. The number is followed by a scene with a film noir feeling that has the much-decorated World War I veteran and now private eye, Sam Speed, drunkenly stumbling into his office. He is suffering from his experiences in the war. The contrast between the dream-like opening number and this scene is intended to give structure to the rest of the play.
Gail Friday is in the outer office and meets Honey Potts, who wants to hire Sam to find DaDa Love, her maybe lover and companion. Potts is the daughter of a wealthy tycoon and has a purse full of money to use to find DaDa. Gail goes to get Sam and, in his office, hears him talking/singing about his experiences in the war. The song “It’s More Than a Memory” gives context to his drinking and emotional remoteness.
In the outer office, things are heating up when Everett Greene walks in and discovers the sexually provocative Honey Potts. They sing a duet, “Oh No, She’s A Blond” that is supposed to set the stage for what follows but, given that dialogue that proceeds it, is unnecessary. The result of the encounter is Honey introducing Everett to the other-worldly quality of the “Green Fairy,” an absinthe-based alcohol reputed to cause hallucinations.
As he disappears into the world of the Green Fairy, Sam and Gail enter, and Sam begins to question Honey about Dada Love and possibly to help her. She gives Sam $100, and that seals the deal. At this point, after Sam and Gail ask Honey where Everett went, a crucial piece of information is provided that will inform the rest of the play.
Honey: “Well, he didn’t leave here exactly. I just told him he had to enter my dream in order to find the answers to this case. I’m sure they’re all there. I’m just having trouble seeing them.”
There is an issue in the production with the transition from reality to a dream state, and this change has to be clear. The lighting effects, by Alexander Bartenieff, could help make a difference, but they do not. The strobe light, used in scene changes, should help with the transition in a temporal setting but is ineffective.
As the show continues, Sam and Gail take big swigs of “Green Fairy” and disappear into the dream world of Honey Potts. Then, everything shifts to Paris and a group dancing and singing a song to the Green Fairy. The group is a parody of the artists of that period who were members of the various competing schools of thought. Darcel Du Camp is Marcel Duchamp, Andre Ranton is Andre Breton, and Countess Analise is a composite of several influential women in the Surrealist movement. This group is the core of the Surrealist opposition to the Dadaists.
Sam, Gail, and Honey appear in the Paris scene as dancers performed to the “Green Fairy” sung by Darcel Du Camp. The singing turns into a disconnected chant by Darcel, with Sam trying to ask questions and make sense of the detached surrealism-inspired responses. Andre Breton, Countess Analise, and Blossom (Amy Catherine Welch) join the surreal conversation. Unfortunately, things do not end well for DaDa Love and Honey Potts as Sam, Gail, Everett, and Blossom look for an escape from the dream world.
The set design by Lytza Colón makes effective use of the limited space available on the theater stage. The lighting design by Bartenieff is adequate but does not always work in support of the action. Colón’s costume design is fine for the main characters but not for some in the ensemble.
Who Murdered Love? (through February 19, 2023)
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue at Tenth Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call (212) 254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission