nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
July 15, 2007
A story of revenge, thwarted romance, and vicious crimes in the Texas heartland, The Executioner is a somewhat ungainly mix of thriller, satire, musical, and melodrama. There are a lot of interesting characters in the mix—an upstanding female sheriff with a crush on her suspect, a smarmy judge writing his own campaign theme songs, a sociopathic waitress out to avenge her mother (a criminal who was executed by the state of Texas), her petty criminal brother who keeps crossing paths with a Mexican gang—but the whole thing feels overwrought.
The play basically tells the story of a crime spree—Barbara Ann and Cort Quartermaine, children of an executed killer, are out to kill all those who played a part in getting their mother wrongfully convicted. (Some of these crimes have taken place before the play starts.) The local sheriff suspects something is going on, but her romantic attraction to Barbara Ann (aka Delilah) complicates the case she's trying to make.
Playwright Jon Kern's plotting shifts gears from languid to feverish midway through. The first part of the play seems to be a flashback from the point of view of one of the murder victims—or perhaps a flash-forward, since his actual death scene is at the very end of the play—and lingers over setting up local color: the town diner and its pie, the upstanding sheriff and her refusal to accept free food, the sweet-as-sugar waitress and her deadbeat brother. Once the murderous plan is revealed, though, the pacing gets fast and furious as Barbara Ann's control starts to slip, leading to a climactic closing scene that's full of blood, over-the-top musical numbers, and the serious mutilation of a pie.
I found myself a little confused by the overall timeline. The narrator, Fred (the executioner of the title; he administers lethal injections at the local women's prison) begins the play talking about his death at the hands of Barbara Ann Delilah Quartermaine. The rest of the play, logically, takes place in flashback, going back to establish a flirty relationship between Fred and Delilah, and the setup for the crime—both the back story of the Quartermaine siblings and their current crime spree and its planning. But when they commit another murder—still before we see Fred's death within the world of the play—Fred greets the new victim in the afterlife (for a little musical number).
The acting is generally strong, especially Kelly Eubanks (Sheriff Santos) and Melinda Helfrich (Delilah/Barbara Ann)—although even they sometimes struggle with the exposition-heavy moments.
I couldn't quite get a grip on the piece stylistically—sometimes it felt tongue-in-cheek and aware of the satirical potential in its melodrama, but a lot of the time it seemed to be playing it straight, and taking its revenge plot seriously. The musical numbers—though some of the songs are terrific taken by themselves—add to the stylistic instability. Some of the numbers fit into context—Barbara Ann remembering a lullaby her mother used to sing and then the band taking it up—and others felt more like characters spontaneously bursting into song as in a more traditional musical—the sheriff's lovely lament before she has to arrest the girl of her dreams.
There are a lot of promising pieces in The Executioner, but they don't quite add up to a satisfying whole.