A little nightmare
Wednesday 20 March 1996
Unlike some early reactions to Sondheim shows, the reviews were neither outraged nor baffled: the story about a psychotherapy group arriving for its weekly meeting on a dark, stormy night to find its leader freshly murdered just seems so commonplace. "The biggest shock is the flatness of the writing," wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times, who compared it to a VCR instruction book translated from Japanese. Clive Barnes in the New York Post called it "not so much a whodunit as a... whydoit, and definitely a whyseeit." Linda Winer at Newsday suggested Sondheim use an alias "to lower expectations".
Its failure shouldn't be surprising. Few murder mysteries have been successful on Broadway since the heyday of Deathtrap and Sleuth, perhaps because television and movies have taken over the genre so skilfully. Never having been a mystery fan in any medium, I identified what I thought was an innovative plot twist - giving away the killer halfway through - only to be told that certain long-running TV shows use that one all the time. The device did allow glimpses into the killer's mind, but his thoughts consist almost solely of shutting everybody up. And when a particularly dramatic plot twist turns out to be a fantasy inside his own mind, you feel tricked so cheaply you want to throw your programme at the stage.
In all fairness, that's an usually weak moment in a somewhat engaging script. There's cunning in the way the characters separately piece together the identity of the killer. Sondheim's trademark, gleefully flippant treatment of death (as in Sweeney Todd) is apparent when an aggressive politician discovers an empty lift shaft as a fast, easy means of knocking people off. There's something soothing about the rampant neuroses of the characters - one cannot help feeling rather sane in comparison - until you realise they're either beyond therapeutic help or, in a few cases, too self-possessed to really need any.
Ultimately, the play is let down by the unimaginative motivations. Many of the characters turn out to be embodiments of the seven deadly sins, but that hardly passes the "so what" test. Perhaps the creators were after a certain old-fashioned quality with hopes of inspiring genre nostalgia. Certainly, Sondheim has never allowed so many cliches to slip into his work - screams, lightning, thunder and lots of other stock devices - though he attempts to do so with a certain amount of class.
The Douglas Schmidt set design is handsome, reminiscent of the Stephen Daldry production of An Inspector Calls. Under Jack O'Brien's direction, the cast of Broadway veterans are mostly excellent, including Terrence Mann as a ruthless real estate mogul, Christine Ebersole as a loveable tramp and Kandis Chappell as a hard-boiled, well-heeled society matron. But John Rubinstein in the central role of the ruthless politician hasn't the Machiavellian qualities needed for this. In fact, he's emblematic of the problems with the play at large: there's no second or third level, no texture, just a surface-bound story with none of the poetic balance that a Sondheim score might provide. DPS
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Alan Rickman admits editing 'terrible' script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
- 2 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 3 Professional big game hunter Ian Gibson crushed to death by elephant during hunt
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 Rebecca Francis accuses Ricky Gervais of using 'influence' to target female hunters after receiving barrage of death threats
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Game of Thrones season 5: Emilia Clarke praises characters who 'accept their femininity'
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Glastonbury 2015 tickets: How to make sure you’re successful in Sunday's re-sale
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate