05 February 2011
If Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, and Agatha Christie ever sat around a bar one night and said "Let's write a murder mystery,” they might have come up with Perfect Crime.
a crackling thriller . . . wonderfully puzzling . . . sends electric thrills up the spine . . . .
Those are some of the words that the producers of Perfect Crime use to advertise and promote their Off-Broadway play, currently running at the Snapple Theater Center at 50th and Broadway. The lines are all over their handbills, ticket websites, and the posters that line the walls of the Snapple lobby.
You know what? Not a chance!
Not only are the quotations—there are several others as well—misleading in numerous small ways, but they’re just plain not true. Not for me and not for the friend with whom I unwittingly attended a performance. I’d in no circumstances invoke the names of Pinter, Williams, or Christie in connection with Perfect Crime; it’s an insult to those great writers to whose work Warren Manzi’s play bears only the remotest and most superficial resemblance. (The first quotation is from the UPI.)
“Crackling”? No way. (What D. J. R. Bruckner said in full in the New York Times is that the play “has the makings of a crackling thriller,” not that it is one.) Nothing crackles in this production, not the story, not the dialogue, and not the acting. Mostly it was flat, but occasionally the cast seemed to be doing a speed-through, running the dialogue as fast and emotionlessly as possible, a technique we used to use to check that we knew our lines word for word.
The only aspects of the play that are “puzzling” are what’s going on and what point there is to it. “Wonderful” isn’t the word I’d choose to enhance that descriptive. (Both “wonderfully puzzling” and the “electric thrills” blurb, also from Bruckner’s 1987 review of the play’s début, apply to two of the characters, not to the play as a whole.) There were no thrills that I felt, electric or otherwise. If there were surprises in the twisty (I say contrived, but maybe that’s just me) plot, I’d long since stopped waiting for them or enjoying the mechanical shifts when they showed up. There were too many of them and they were just too arbitrary.
Another ad line producer Armand Hyatt likes is from another New York Times notice, Jason Zinoman’s re-review in 2005. He called the play “an urban legend,” the promotions like to note. But what Zinoman wrote was that the play, having been around by then for 18 years, was “so inconspicuous for so long that it has often seemed like an urban legend.” He wasn’t describing the play’s quality or appeal, but its low profile; Zinoman had only met one person who claimed (admitted?) to have seen it. (I’ve met only one who knew the play—I didn’t even recognize the title, even though I make a point of reading all the reviews and theater news and must have read all the articles the Times ran over the years since it opened on 18 April 1987.)
Okay, I guess it’s time to fill you all in a little. Perfect Crime is the longest-running non-musical play in New York theater history, according to its own claims. (Ironically—or maybe not—it shares a theater building with the revived Fantasticks, playing downstairs in the Jerry Orbach Theater since 2006, the longest-running musical in the world: 17,162 performances when the original closed in 2002.) After opening at the Courtyard Playhouse in the Village, PC has moved to six other theaters (one of them three times) until finally settling in at the Snapple in 2005. It has been running more or less continuously for almost 24 years—nearly 10,000 performances. (The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s mystery play, has been running in London since 1952, over 24,000 performances so far. A 1974 revival of Israel Horovitz’s Line has played Off-Off-Broadway for 37 years, but it, of course, is a non-commercial production.) Catherine Russell, who plays the lone female role, has been with the show since it premièred and has missed only four performances in all that time (to attend family weddings—no sick days, no vacations), holding the Guinness World Record for the most performances by a theater actor in a single role. (At the time the record was certified, 18 April 2009, 22 years after opening, that added up to 8,983 performances, or just under 18,000 hours—more than two years—on stage. Carol Channing and Yul Brynner each played 5,000 shows or fewer as Dolly Levi and the King of Siam—and those weren’t all in continuous productions. Marian Seldes performed 1,809 consecutive times in Deathtrap, the next-longest run. Russell’s gone another year and nine months since setting the record, approximately another 715 shows.)
On Friday night, 28 January, my friend Diana and I decided to take a shot at scoring tickets for Time Stands Still at the TKTS booth in Duffy Square. Diana had an appointment in the late afternoon, so I was designated to get to the booth at about 6 p.m. and see what was available and if TSS was on the board, buy the tickets, and find a place to eat dinner where Diana could meet me before the curtain. Our luck was bad that evening, however, and the only seats for TSS that were available were partially obscured and cost $91 each. I called Diana, who was on her way to 42nd Street from way uptown, and told her the bad news. We decided to pass on that show and I suggested waiting until she made it to TKTS and we’d decide on something else together. She arrived and we debated a couple of plays—Diana had decided she was more in the mood for a straight play than a musical, which eliminated a number of possibilities—and we asked the TDF volunteers who make themselves available to provide information about some of the offerings. One was Perfect Crime, right up the street three blocks and going for $35—a thriller that the volunteer made sound enticing, including the fact that it’s the city’s longest running play (though neither of us could remember having heard of it before). So that’s how we ended up at the Snapple Theater at 8 that evening, two of several dozen spectators in the half-empty house. Looking back, the fact that neither Diana nor I, both inveterate theatergoers, had heard of the play despite its historic run should have been a clue (no pun intended). The lack of attendance at the performance on a Friday night might have been another. In any case, fate had it that that’s where we ended up that night.
Perfect Crime’s plot centers on Margaret Thorne Brent (that’s Russell, the Cal Ripken of Theater), a psychiatrist in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, an exclusive and very private community in Hartford County. The cook has reported that she witnessed Brent’s husband, also a shrink, being shot to death by a redheaded woman in a green dress. (Harrison Brent, the husband, is British, by the by, so it gives the actor playing him—yes, he shows up, apparently alive and sort of well—a chance to sound as if he were doing an Agatha Christie mystery. Or a Pinter play.) When an unidentified woman is also found murdered, the case comes under the investigation of Inspector Ascher of the local constabulary. Revealing a “set of secrets and indiscretions,” as director Jeffrey Hyatt describes them, Margaret and Ascher and the rest of the characters (not to mention the audience) endure a convoluted inquiry that may or may not reveal that Margaret has committed the . . . ummm, perfect crime. (The play, by the way, is a gun-lovers paradise. Firearms of several types are brandished all over the place and about a dozen shots are fired at each performance.) I won’t go into any more detail because, mostly, it’d be too difficult to make it comprehensible—Leaya Lee of New York magazine called the narrative “nonsensical”—but also, like a good theater reporter, I won’t give away the ending in case someone actually decides to give the play a try. (I don’t know why anyone would, and I don’t recommend it—but there’s no accounting for taste. Or some people’s tolerance of masochism.)
Jason Zinoman called the play a “mothball-ridden soap opera” and “a middlebrow murder mystery.” (Mysteriously—if you will—the script has been published by Samuel French, if anyone wants to try to sort it all out.) He was kinder than I’d be—but much less generous than Bruckner was 18 years earlier. (Zinoman also had some negative things to say about the performances, but, except for Russell, the cast he saw six years ago isn’t the cast I saw in January. Bruckner called the original company “able.”) My estimation of the whole show, both script and performance, is that it resembles something a moderately talented undergraduate college troupe might devise. (Diana said high school, but it’s too sophisticated for most high school concoctions.) The play is so filled with little plot bombs, contrived surprises, that it ceased to be believable after two scenes. I won’t even go into the anachronistic props—several reviewers and bloggers noted them, too—like a reel-to-reel tape recorder. (Can you even get tapes for those things anymore?) The acting was so perfunctory—maybe everyone has gotten so tired that they’re no longer really paying attention, though, Russell aside, I don’t know how long anyone’s been with the production—that I couldn’t tell if they were trying to do camp or just didn’t really care. (It was Russell, by the way, who seemed to be speeding through her lines, often with very little affect. After more than 23 years, she may be on autopilot.) Of course, the possibility exists that the cast just doesn’t really believe what the characters are doing and can’t fake it anymore.
So, given all this, how does a play make it in the commercial New York theater for so long? Really good plays that got top reviews and a lot of buzz have been forced to close prematurely; good actors have been swept off the stage by inadequate ticket sales. Why has Perfect Crime kept going, like the Energizer Bunny, for over two decades? The company likes to say it’s because audiences just love mysteries and points to Mousetrap and TV’s Law & Order as long-running examples. That may be part of what hooks people, but I don’t believe it’s enough of an explanation to account for 23-plus years on stage. Let’s have a look and see what we can discover.
First, in addition to the standard cost-savers such as a small cast (four, plus one on video), one modest set, and simple costumes, part of the answer may be a weave of nepotism and featherbedding. There’s a whiff of vanity production wafting around the endeavor: the play débuted at the Courtyard Theatre where Manzi was conveniently the artistic director of the resident Actors Collective at the time. (The script had lain in a drawer for seven years, reports assert, because Manzi had rejected an offer of a Broadway production under Morton Gottlieb, possibly starring Mary Tyler Moore or Elaine Stritch, when Gottlieb wanted to change the title to Guilty Hands. For heaven’s sake, why?) The PC company is criss-crossed with ties and relationships outside of the professional associations common in a theater production. First, producer Armand Hyatt, director Jeffrey Hyatt, and playwright Warren Manzi are all cousins. (Manzi’s and Jeffrey Hyatt’s fathers were brothers of, respectively, Armand Hyatt’s mother and father.) Armand Hyatt, a lawyer by profession before he started producing theater, has been Manzi’s attorney since before the writer composed PC. (Manzi’s an actor; he was understudying Mozart in Amadeus on Broadway when he wrote the play.) All three are from the area around Lawrence, Massachusetts (30 miles north-northwest of Boston), and were active in the business community. (The company is a small New England mafia, though they don’t all seem to have been acquainted before PC.) Writer Manzi, with Jay Stone, is also the set designer of PC, which saves on salaries and royalties, I presume, and Russell, who runs a consulting firm that advises people on creating and managing long-running plays, is the general manager of the show. (Patrick Robustelli, who plays the talk-show host on TV at the opening of the play, is Russell’s long-time boyfriend.) Given the low audience count, which Zinoman also reported in 2005, the box office alone probably isn’t keeping PC afloat; some of the tab may be paid by the participants themselves: Armand Hyatt and his business partner John Grossi have both invested their own money in the production as well as the lease on the Snapple Theater.
Astute and even creative business practices are also part of the equation. Russell, Armand Hyatt, and Grossi together form the Clementine Company, which leases the theater building. They, in turn, sublet it to the production companies for PC and The Fantasticks, a gambit that saves on costs like rent. Russell, in her capacity of company manager, runs the theater (she’s been known to take tickets herself, like she did at Off-Off-Broadway’s Actors Collective), and I imagine that saves on costs as well. (It could also explain her lackadaisical performance: she’s just tired. She also teaches at NYU and Baruch College, and says she gets 4½ hours of sleep a night.) Clementine (named for one of Russell’s dogs) also arranged for Snapple to put its name on the theater (the drink company has the refreshment concession in the lobby) with its name and logo emblazoned on the Broadway façade of the building, though none of the producers acknowledged how much that deal brought to the company. As those things generally go, however, you can be sure it’s considerable for an Off-Broadway operation. (Clementine is the first Off-Broadway company to work out a deal for a corporate name on a theater.)
Finally, of course, is the marketing. The producers (the press rep is John Capo – DBS Press) sell their show on the basis, first, of its longevity. That was the first thing the touts at Duffy Square told us when we asked about the play and it’s blazoned across the handbill in a bright yellow cordon that contrasts with the rest of maroon-white-and-black flyer: “Guinness Award Winner” (even though it isn’t the play that has the record, but one of the cast members). Second, the press quotations that appear everywhere are carefully chosen, even manipulated as we’ve seen, to put the best spin on the reception. Most shows use quote ads, of course, but PC uses almost exclusively blurbs from the press in all its promotional materials (aside from the ticket and location information and a brief description, the one-page handbill has six quotations, most of them fairly long) and has edited them in ways that come close to violating the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs policy against misquoting reviews in theater ads. (In 1984, a Broadway production was fined for this offense.) PC doesn’t run any paid ads that I’ve seen and it isn’t even in the New York Times's ABC’s. Zinoman gave the impression he was astonished at the low profile of PC, but I wonder if it’s not the theatrical equivalent of Twimble, the company man in How To Succeed: it stays out of the spotlight so that it doesn’t draw negative attention and just survives. After all, when Zinoman did notice the play and wrote about it, he wasn’t very complimentary. This way, the show doesn’t pull in hordes of spectators—in 2005, Russell reported an average weekly gross of $35,000-45,000, or about 110 tickets (a little less than half of capacity) at $40—but it gets by. (Seats are now up to $50-60.) "We wouldn't run if we didn't make money," Russell told Zinoman—but she wouldn’t say how much came from the deal with Snapple. Steven Jarmon, vice president for marketing resources at Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, who oversees Snapple, acknowledged that the deal would cost the company ''several million dollars'' over the five years of the contract (with an option for an additional five-year renewal).
In the end, I don’t understand why Perfect Crime is still running (or, really, why it lasted beyond the original 16 performances back in ’87). It cries out for the kind of treatment Stoppard gave The Real Inspector Hound or Neil Simon gave the film Murder by Death—farce and spoof. Playing the situation straight, as if it could actually happen, only makes it look more ridiculous—not funny, just preposterous—and how that could draw in an audience astounds me. That the actors seem to be working at half energy only compounds the weakness. I can only guess that most of those who do attend Perfect Crime do so under the same circumstances as Diana and I: ignorance and bad advice. (According to the blogosphere, we weren’t the only two to fall into that sinkhole. Unwary but miffed spectators by the score—astonishingly, not all of those who’ve seen the show; some seem inexplicably to have liked it—have written in to blogs and websites to vent.) Keeping the play off the theatergoers’ radar, whether a deliberate strategy or just luck, appears to work out well for Hyatt, Hyatt, and Manzi. Well, if anyone reads ROT before choosing an Off-Broadway play, maybe they’ll avoid this pitfall.
[I get angry at the waste that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark represents. The profligacy in terms of dollars, human ingenuity, and physical danger means that other, more worthy endeavors are going begging and may never see a stage because of the effort and attention lavished on Spider-Man. But I can’t feel that dismay over Perfect Crime, no matter how inadequate it is as a play or a production. The producers and creators of that show aren’t likely to move on to much else, so devoted they seem to nurturing that endeavor. Hundreds of actors (one of whom, I’ve just discovered, was a respected former friend) have been employed in PC, as well as stage hands and technicians, and I can’t begrudge them their paying jobs. In my estimation, as you’ve gathered, it’s a poor effort which provided me no pleasure, but I won’t condemn the participants for their involvement. If that’s all they aspire to, then that’s for them to live with. Spider-Man, no matter how it turns out, is a public shame.]