nytheatre.com review by Todd Carlstrom
October 5, 2006
In a certain famous play by a certain famous Elizabethan playwright, a power-hungry Scottish nobleman named Macbeth undertakes regicide in service of his selfish political aims. His transformation from a loyal soldier into the murderer of his king is harrowing, the more so because the weaknesses that drive his ambition are so universally human. Indeed, even at his most arrogant and amoral, Macbeth maintains the audience's sympathy, for they have borne witness to the forces that have shaped him.
In the new comedy/murder mystery Macdeath, playwrights John Martin and Dudley Stone draw inspiration from some of the plot points and themes of the Scottish play, but have no interest in the humanity. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing—again, this is a comedy/mystery, and wisely makes no pretense at transcending either of those genres, so it falls well out of the purview of the script to chart the loss of its characters' moral compass. Its success rests on whether it makes you laugh and/or keeps you guessing.
Alas, HMS Productions' world premiere staging of Macdeath falls just short of meeting those criteria. It's certainly charming enough, and boasts some expert performances, as well as gorgeous costumes. There are a couple of out-loud laughs, more than a few snickers, but ultimately it isn't witty enough to earn a two-and-a-half hour run time on the merits of its comedy. Unfortunately, the mystery that drives the plot doesn't quite stretch to fill that time either, and the solution manages to be predictable and unbelievable at the same time.
It is 1939. The family of actor Mornington "Morny" Mansfield (played by Cyrus E. Newitt) gathers with him at the ancestral manor, ostensibly to celebrate his recently being knighted for contributions to English theatre, but more realistically to get drunk and snipe at each other. The petty narcissisms of the characters have evidently long served as conversational fodder for them by the time the lights rise, but they manage to begrudgingly tolerate one another. That is, until a mysterious disfigured man leaves a package on their doorstep, containing a death threat and a prop knife that may have belonged to Morny's long-dead brother Piers.
Tommy Lennox (Charles Karel), the rich Scottish husband of Mansfield's sister Mildred (Christine Rendel), has received the same ominous message as well. As the alcohol flows, so do the accusations. But who has a motive? Well, everyone, naturally.
It is a well-known secret that Morny has gambled away all but a pittance of his acting fortune, leaving him in dire financial straits. This has bred resentment between him and his wife Rachel (Ellen Mittenthal), who gave up an acting career of her own when she married him. Morny envies Tommy for his uncanny business savvy, and the gobs of lucre it has brought him. Tommy covets the celebrity that he feels Mansfield ill deserves. Mildred Lennox still harbors anger toward her brother, whose acting career only took off once the superior actor in the family, Piers, mysteriously disappeared; furthermore, she stands to profit handsomely, should her husband's frail heart give out. Morny and Rachel's daughter, Jenny (Stephanie Stone), also rates a mention in Tommy's will, and just might be homicidal enough to hasten her payday. Her fiancé, a doctor named Heinrich (Ben Killberg), is half-German and given to outbursts of prolonged Wägner appreciation, which is suspicious enough on the brink of World War II. Detective Sergeant Crump (David Berent) arrives to investigate the threats but soon finds himself drawn into the older mystery of Piers Mansfield.
The best laughs largely derive from the pithy insults the family hurl at each other, some of which would not be out of place in an Oscar Wilde piece. Macdeath really fires on all cylinders when the crack ensemble has a good string of consecutive barbs to reel off and react to. Unfortunately, a lot of lines are simply not funny enough, particularly after the intermission. The script includes no less than three running variations on the creaky "getting people's or places' names wrong" gag, and Heinrich seems to exist only so that the audience can hear bizarre lines interpreted Teutonically. The actors' attempts at more physical comedy seem half-hearted and uninspired, the exception being Rendel's delightfully besotted antics as Mildred. Though everyone gets a moment to shine, the standout performer is definitely Karel, who brings believable nuance and charm to the cantankerous Highlander.
Director Brian Nelson never seems to decide whether he's more inclined toward the comic or mysterious side of the show, and as neither side makes a particularly sustained case for itself, the second act bogs down unnecessarily. In fairness to all involved, I saw the first performance. Many of my complaints might be moot after a few more run-throughs, once the timing kinks have worked themselves out, but I definitely felt that the show could have been shortened by at least a third. By the time the mystery is resolved, the reaction is more "That's it?" than "That's it!"
As mentioned briefly before, Carlotta Kerwin's costumes are gorgeous. Sometimes, a black box budget means fudging the details for a period piece, particularly when the characters are predominantly upper crust. Thanks to Kerwin's designs (and the actors' portrayals), I never once doubted that the Mansfields were manor-born. Cyrus E. Newitt, who plays Mornington, has also done a great job on the set and lights.