nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
September 23, 2010
It is a dark and stormy night, and a writer is typing at his keyboard.
Thunder, lightning, a loud knock at the door. An intruder in a ski mask. An altercation, an accusation, a revelation. The game is afoot.
Against a backdrop of every hoary cliche in the book, Character Assassins marries thriller to comedy in the temple of the Theatre, in the process eviscerating writers and critics alike. It is a literate and clever piece, evoking Sleuth, Mamet, and all things dark and twisty in between. As the press materials state, it's a "knowing backstage play that skewers knowing backstage plays."
And it's very funny.
Miserably failed playwright Jonathan Burns has decided to take revenge on fabulously successful theatre critic Simon Frank, who has savaged his latest play. The tables turn, and turn again, and maybe thrice more, in a 90-minute arm-wrestle between these two very sharp—in all senses of the word—protagonists.
Not too much more can safely be said about the plot, but much praise needs to be heaped on the two very skillful actors who carry it out. Warren Kelley plays Simon Frank with an air of affected disdain redolent of theatre critics who only exist in movies and plays—think Addison DeWitt and Sheridan Whiteside—and yet avoids making him a caricature. And Brad Fraizer's worm effortlessly turns, swiftly powering back and forth from desperate drunk to Gordon Gekko. Director Dana Benningfield keeps the play moving quickly and tightly, ratcheting up the suspense as the play moves toward what the characters, talking shop, praise as an inevitable ending that is nonetheless surprising.
Playwright Charlie Schulman draws on an obvious wealth of theatrical familiarity. Crackling observations and dry digressions evoke, invoke—and likely provoke—Chekhov, Beckett, Ibsen, O'Neill, Shakespeare, and their ilk. (A drunken Jonathan Burns muses as to where Nora was going at that hour of the night anyway?) The art and craft of making theatre are smartly dealt with (Notes Jonathan, plaintively reflecting on the advantages of heightened dramatic time in a play, where actions can unspool swiftly or slowly: "In life, things last too long or not long enough."), along with the relentless politics, personalities, and general cluelessness of the whole play-making enterprise. But counterbalancing the arch and the wry is a genuine appreciation of the theatre and what it can do when it's at its best: lift us up, take us away, and bring us back ennobled and enlightened.
This comic thriller may not do all that, but it makes for a thoroughly entertaining evening, with high production values and strong acting. Particularly deserving mention is the terrific lighting design by Jill Nagle; her opening thunderstorm rivaled any seen on the shore this week. And Jessica Parks's set—Simon Frank's tony uptown apartment—is tasteful, intelligent, and interesting, lightly underscoring the character's pretensions and love of creature comforts.