'Tall Story' might be a better title for "Getting Away With Murder," the new Stephen Sondheim-George Furth comedy-thriller that opened last night at the Broadhurst. You have to employ a considerable stretch of the imagination to swallow the ending.
But there are so many devilishly delicious doings along the way, the lads are forgiven.
Yes, "Murder" is mostly a contrived piece of stagecraft. Yes, it is melodrama with more than a bit of pretention.
But your heart is going to skip several beats and your neck is going to tingle before the night is over. And that hasn't happened since "Deathtrap."
This is the first time that Sondheim the master craftsman of the musical theater has attempted a straight play. The man who concocted barbershop murders in "Sweeney Todd," fractured fairy tales with "Into the Woods" and wrote anthems for presidential "Assassins" has always had a sense for the macabre. An avid game enthusiast as well, he gets the chance here to combine vocation and avocation.
The game's afoot as soon as the curtain rises on a dark, foreboding psychiatrist's office atop a dilapidated New York building. It is a violently stormy night. A woman screams. Two digital clocks facing the audience count off the minutes.
The only seven patients of the mysterious Dr. Conrad Bering have gathered in his waiting room for their weekly group session. They are a microcosm of a city that is at once lusty, greedy, envious, slothful, gluttonous, prideful and angry. But could one of them be guilty of an eighth deadlier sin?
Only the doctor knows for sure, and as the patients and the audience soon discover he lies quite still and very dead in his inner office.
Without a Freudian slip, the seven begin accusing one another before calming down to solve the caper. As this plays out, in another part of the city, a young junkie tries to pick up a woman at a disco with tragic consequences. In his final agony and stupor, the man, too, phones the psychiatrist for help.
But his final solace is an answering machine.
The first act, reported to be mostly Furth's, is a firecracker of timing, suspense and thrills punctuated by thunder claps. The second, reported to be mostly Sondheim's, tends to plod but still has its share of surprises. (The two collaborated on the musicals "Company" and "Merrily We Roll Along.")
As for the cast, John Rubinstein and Terrence Mann are first-rate as a slimy political kingmaker and an unscrupulous developer, respectively. Christine Ebersole, Kandis Chappell, Josh Mostel, Jodi Long and Frankie R. Faison are also ef fective.
Douglas W. Schmidt's brooding set and Kenneth Posner's lighting are up to par. Jack O'Brien's direction is taut and tantalizing.
Despite the ending, "Getting Away With Murder" is more fun than a roomful of Agatha Christies.
It was murder in there last night at the Broadhurst Theater, where Stephen Sondheim and George Furst's uncomic and unthrilling comedy thriller, "Getting Away With Murder," opened.
No one got away with anything, not even the largely capable cast.
Sondheim, recognized rightly and universally as the leader - nay, practically the patron-saint - of the American musical theater, has for long had a subsidiary, subtextual reputation as a master of puzzles and puzzlement.
And with the knowledge that he is known to be a connoisseur of what Raymond Chandler in his famous essay termed "the simple art of murder" - although Chandler's all-American feel for Dashiell Hammett was in Sondheim's case said to extend to the arcane and Anglicized theatrics of John Dickson Carr's "locked room" mysteries - "Getting Away With Murder" promised to reveal a new side of a master.
We should have taken heed of a celluloid warning shot.
Sondheim's penchant for homicidal puzzlement had already led to his collaboration with Anthony Perkins, in the screenplay of the 1973 movie "The Last of Sheila," a bizarrely ineffectual and tedious parody of Agatha Christie.
But there at least was an attempt at cleverness.
There is not so much as an attempt, however ill-advised, at cleverness in "Getting Away With Murder." Sondheim and Furth emerge from this nonsensical farrago with their hands raised and nothing up their sleeves.
There is a very proper tradition in reviewing thrillers that one gives away as little of the plot as possible, and in particular never reveals the name of the perpetrator or perpetrators. That is definitely not cricket, not baseball, and obviously not chess.
But here Sondheim and Furth themselves identify the murderer about a third of the way through the evening - and, surprise, surprise, he remains the murderer to the end. One sits there waiting for some magic, brilliant denouement that never denoues.
Are we meant to admire the authors' devilish double-bluff on us - an extension of that blase device of over-sophisticated detective fiction that actually permits the most obvious of butlers to do it - or is it, more likely, simply a sheer lack of ingenuity, or even interest.
Compare this with "Sleuth," or even "Deathtrap" or "Corpse," to mention three specimens of that obviously endangered species, the Broadway thriller, and "Getting Away With Murder" appears simply shoddy.
It is not that Sondheim and Furth do not have a quite-promising basic premise. A Pulitzer-prize-winning psychiatrist, Dr. Conrad Bering (who the observant will have noted is present in the cast list as being played by a definitely living actor - Herb Foster) is apparently murdered in his suite at the top of an otherwise derelict New York apartment building.
Only one elevator is working, and it requires a key. The only people - apart from a pot-sodden porter on the ground floor - who have access to Bering's suite are a carefully selected group of seven patients (the number is ludicrously significant) summoned each week at this time as a support group.
All these usual suspects, of course, eventually turn up, together with one perfectly plausible newcomer to the group, Martin Chisholm (John Rubinstein), impatiently awaiting Dr. Bering, whose battered corpse is, all in good time, seemingly discovered. The group decides to play detective in advance of summoning the police.
Why are these carefully assorted types together (there is a perfectly silly explanation)? Was Bering murdered? If so, who murdered him? And what will happen by the final curtain?
Nothing much. At the final curtain, you get to leave. And not a moment too soon.
Perhaps the lack of amazement would matter less if the quotient of amusement mattered more, but unfortunately the attempts to thrill are hamfisted. The jokes are awful.
The one person who comes out of the evening modestly well is the scene designer, Douglas W. Schmidt. And perhaps a word - if only a word - is in order for the moderately special effects of Gregory Meeh.
Jack O'Brien has staged it as well as I suppose it could be staged - but he should have had the sense to leave it in his own theater in San Diego where it started - and the acting shifts between the smartly competent and the doggedly competent.
Rubinstein did suavely enough by Chisholm, a mayoral assistant, Terrence Mann proved neatly overbearing as a real estate tycoon, Christine Ebersole did the best anyone could do as the resident nymphomaniac, and I liked very much Michelle Hurd, in a small oddly disconnected role, departing the scene far too soon.
Broadway, as most people are agreed, could do with the occasional thriller. But "Getting Away With Murder" is not so much a whodunit as a perhaps a whydoit, and definitely a whyseeit.
Almost everybody loves a good mystery play, even those people who read mystery novels only when nothing else is available: you're spending a weekend in the country, it's late, everybody else is asleep, you have a choice between a tattered copy of June Bride and a stack of Agatha Christie paperbacks. Christie wins. At any point you can turn to the back of the book, find out who did it and go to sleep, the mind as barren as a looted tomb.
You can't do that in the theater. Since there's no possibility of jumping ahead, you're stuck with the playwright as turnkey. Yet every now and then the discipline pays off. That's if the writer is able to construct a puzzle with such economy and wit that you leave the theater experiencing a completely unexpected, ephemeral high. Think of Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution" and Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth," or even of "The Last of Sheila," the densely clued, bitchily funny film written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins.
Not for years have we had any theatrical mysteries as satisfying as these. And never has the time seemed more right for the kind of cerebral puzzles Mr. Sondheim constructs when he's not writing music and lyrics. Thus the great expectations for -- and great disappointment in -- the new Sondheim-George Furth comedy-thriller, "Getting Away With Murder," which opened last night at the Broadhurst.
"Getting Away With Murder" is like a board game that might better be called Group, in which the rules read like the instructions accompanying a VCR imported from the Far East. The dialogue is in English, but it's without character, largely made up of explanations that wouldn't be necessary if the mechanism itself had been more efficiently thought through.
The situation is this: It's a Saturday night in October; a fierce thunderstorm is in progress. Seven patients of an eminent psychiatrist, who's also a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, meet for their weekly group therapy session. The place is the doctor's suite on the top floor of a crumbling old Manhattan apartment building on West End Avenue. Because the building is scheduled for renovation shortly, it's otherwise empty, tended only by a Hispanic super whose language disabilities are aggravated by his fondness for pot.
Six of the patients have been in the group for some time. They are: a rich, high-profile real-estate promoter, responsible for the deaths of five workers on a construction site; a Connecticut society woman who shot a prowler later identified as her husband; a New York City police detective on suspension after fatally bungling a drug stakeout; an overweight Greek fellow who, supplied by Zabar's, is eating himself to death; an Asian-American woman who resents being Asian, a woman and a second-rate academic, and a pretty, lusty restaurant hostess who wants to become a mistress -- anybody's.
The group's new member, dressed in black tie like the real-estate man, is a powerful political consultant in line to become the next Mayor of New York.
As they gather in the doctor's waiting room, delivering so-so one-liners between great heaps of exposition, it becomes clear that something is wrong: there is no doctor. What the audience knows, and they don't, is that he's in a heap in his inner office, having been bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument.
After the discovery is made, do they call the police? Foolish question. Having good reason to suspect that one of them did it, they conduct their own investigation amid power blackouts, sightings of phantom figures on the terrace outside and enigmatic messages on the doctor's answering machine. None of them need any more publicity. They keep the ghastly business in camera even as their numbers dwindle.
Good setup, clumsily executed. It seems at times as if the writers were longing for the freedom that a film affords. Cutaways to brief scenes in other locations, played in a cramped area downstage right, add information but take away from the tension that should be mounting within the principal set.
Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Furth, the collaborators responsible for "Company" and "Merrily We Roll Along," also write themselves into corners from which they escape only by introducing more characters. Yet they do know how to build suspense in short takes. There's some comic business involving an open elevator shaft, and a hoary if amusing trick played on the audience midway through. Unfortunately, just about everybody knows the identity of the killer long before the end, which thus becomes less apocalyptic than anticlimactic.
The biggest shock is the flatness of the writing. "The Last of Sheila" may not be high comedy, but it has lines that sting. Its picture of Beautiful People misbehaving is good, wisecracking, satirical entertainment. Though at least two of the characters in "Getting Away With Murder" suggest real-life models (Donald Trump, Anne Woodward), most of them are merely functions of the game Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Furth are playing. They're mouthpieces.
As directed by Jack O'Brien, who staged Lincoln Center's excellent and even more complicated production of "Hapgood," the principal performers are all good: John Rubinstein as the political consultant, Terrence Mann as the real-estate hustler, Christine Ebersole as the would-be mistress, Jodi Long as the Asian-American woman, Frankie R. Faison as the cop, Josh Mostel as the glutton and Kandis Chappell as the killer-socialite.
There's also something nuttily impressive about the demented profligacy with which "Getting Away With Murder" has been produced. It looks as if money were burned. Douglas W. Schmidt's great, atmospheric set seems to have a life of its own as, at one point, it revolves slightly to show the audience the body no one else yet knows about. Also first-rate are Kenneth Posner's spooky lighting and Gregory Mech's special effects.
It's possible that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Furth had great fun weighing the many possibilities their original idea suggested. The audience is not so privileged. It can only consider the end result in which the final decisions play like desperate compromises. They're never inevitable.
Unpleasant characters are thriller fodder, and if unpleasantness redressed by death were everything, "Getting Away With Murder" would be a masterpiece, or at least an exemplar of that bastard genre, the comedy thriller. But as this play by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth is utterly thrill-free and almost utterly laugh-free, masterpiece it ain't.
The prospects for the show are about the same as the prospects for the dramatis personae, most of whom die at least twice in the course of the evening. It's a goner.
Since Sondheim is the author of some of the cleverest lyrics ever set to his own music, and Furth is the author of the problematic books of Sondheim's "Company" and "Merrily We Roll Along," as well as such awful stand-alones as "Twigs" and "Precious Sons," one might assume that for "Getting Away With Murder"-- the play was called "The Doctor Is Out" during its premiere last fall at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego -- Sondheim wrote the music and Furth wrote the words. But there is no music in "Getting Away With Murder."
There is, however, a strange, if evocative, set by Douglas Schmidt depicting the top-floor apartment of an Upper West Side building in an advanced state of decrepitude. Stage right is a living room arranged for group therapy; stage left is the office of a psychiatrist, Dr. Conrad Bering (Herb Foster, in his second completely thankless role of the season, following "Sacrilege"). Surrounding is a hallway with two elevator entrances, one of which is doorless and secured only by an X of police tape.
It is a Saturday evening, and the members of Dr. Bering's group begin to arrive: Dossie Lustig (Christine Ebersole), a chatty nymphomaniac; Pamela Prideaux (Kandis Chappell), haughty society matron; Vassili Laimorgos (Josh Mostel), voracious slob; Gregory Reed (Terrence Mann), real estate tycoon; Dan Gerard (Frankie Faison), trigger-happy cop; Nam-Jun Vuong (Jodi Long), a professor with a persecution complex; and Martin Chisholm (John Rubinstein), a political consultant aspiring to the mayoralty.
The plot turns initially on the doctor's failure to arrive for the group session, and the subsequent discovery of his bludgeoned body in the inner office. A setup worthy of Agatha Christie, in which all of the patients are suspect, leads to interminable examination and cross-examination of the patients by one another. By the end of the first act, whodunit is revealed, and even why.
We might reasonably figure the play is over at that point,but no such luck. Though the murderer's identity doesn't change, the group dynamics do, requiring much more arcana about datebooks and telephone messages and the like. There is one suspenseful sequence in which the murderer tries to lure a patient who may have figured things out to a certain death at that empty elevator shaft, but that's as close to a thrill as "Getting Away With Murder" ever offers.
The central character is Chisholm, whose wanton son (William Ragsdale) has inadvertently killed a young woman (Michelle Hurd), and is himself inadvertently killed when his father gives him a sedative that reacts with the array of drugs in his system.
One would think all this trauma would weigh heavily on Chisholm, but again, no such luck: As written and as played by Rubinstein, Martin is a cold opportunist, an emotional void. The same holds true for the others, with the exception of Ebersole, who keeps trying desperately to pump some life into Dossie. This play will become the latest article of evidence for those who believe that Sondheim's characters have no souls.
What's so surprising, given the Sondheim pedigree, is the play's gracelessness. The dialogue is flat and anachronistic, the situation never compels. It's terminally boring.
Jack O'Brien is a wonderful director of ensembles with complex business to transact -- cf. last season's "Hapgood" at Lincoln Center Theater -- and these are wonderful actors in a wonderful-looking production. But "Getting Away With Murder" is all icky and no play.