A little nightmare

Stephen Sondheim has taken so much grief over the years for writing brainy musicals that are too good for Broadway, you'd think that theatregoers might be relieved with his first non-musical, a nice, easily digestible murder mystery entitled Getting Away With Murder, written with his collaborator on Company, George Furth. However, in the wake of the Sunday opening at the Broadhurst Theater, New York, this may be Sondheim's biggest critical failure since Anyone Can Whistle in 1964.

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

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