[NYC] PERFECT CRIME (Armand Hyatt): A conundrum of a play

Richard Shoberg and Catherine Russell in PERFECT CRIME (Photo credit: Courtesy of DDPR)
Richard Shoberg and Catherine Russell in PERFECT CRIME (Photo credit: Courtesy of DDPR)

Since its opening Off-Broadway in 1987, PERFECT CRIME has become a record breaker. Now in its 29th year, the old-fashioned murder mystery is the longest running play in New York and its star, Catherine Russell, has appeared all but four times in its history, earning her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as early as 2008, for the most theater performances in the same role (female). Appealing mostly to a tourist market with affordable discounted ticket prices, the convoluted whodunit has enough twists and turns, implausible plot points, mistaken identities, and muddled references to confound even Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, the fictional masters of the detective genre that inspired playwright Warren Manzi’s confusing work. The show’s website even includes a section of spoilers, to explain the crimes, characters, and clues to befuddled audiences.

Set in the sitting room of her Connecticut home, Dr. Margaret Thorne Brent, a psychiatrist (played with manic tendencies by Russell), is suspected of killing her wealthy husband and fellow psychiatrist Harrison (the dapper Jack Koenig), who may or may not be British. But did she or didn’t she? Is he really dead? Why are the bodies of her patients and acquaintances piling up in and around the house? Those are the puzzles Inspector James Ascher (Richard Shoberg, in a low-key portrayal) must solve. Thrown into the mix are suicidal patient Lionel McAuley (Hugh Hysell), reenactments of the real or imagined murders as a questionable method of psychotherapy (Hysell provides some moments of laughter in a woman’s red wig and dress, until the initial visual humor turns tragically insane), long-lost daughters and lovers, a recorded TV interview with Margaret (including a videotaped appearance by Patrick Robustelli as cable show host David Breuer), and an instant sexual attraction between the detective and his prime suspect; the result is an impossibly tangled one-hour-and-45-minute conundrum. A stationary scenic design (Jay Stone) and apropos costumes (Nancy Bush) are the most clear and comprehensible, albeit somewhat dated, elements of the production, which, according to the program, takes place in the present day. Directed with abstruse seriousness by Jeffrey Hyatt, the play, with the addition of some comedic flair and energy, might work better as a full-blown farce than a thoroughly perplexing drama.

If you’d like to try your hand at following the clues and unraveling the mystery, PERFECT CRIME runs indefinitely at The Theater Center, which is also the current home to the world’s longest running musical, The Fantasticks, and to the third installment in the first-ever Off-Broadway trilogy, My Big Gay Italian Midlife Crisis. You can catch them all in a whirlwind three-day theater binge!

[The Theater Center, 210 W 50th Street, 3rd fl., The Anne L. Bernstein Theater, New York, NY] open-ended run; perfect-crime.com.

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