Staging of 'Murderer' itself represets ghastly crime

January 21, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Some people believe that murder is an art," a character says in Anthony Shaffer's "Murderer." Maybe so, but there's little that approaches art in either this script or Harbour Theatre's production.

Let's start with the set. A combination artist's studio and living room in an English country home, it features a glass-enclosed bathroom, complete with tub and shower, which is plunked down smack-dab in the center of the room.

Why the bathtub is in the middle of the living room is one of the bigger mysteries of the show -- until, that is, the tub turns out to be the scene of the crime. At that point, a kind of plodding consistency is revealed by the fact that the set is about as subtle as the play itself.

There's certainly no attempt at subtlety when it comes to gore. The action begins with a prolonged scene of murder and dismemberment. For approximately a half-hour -- and without a word of dialogue -- we watch as Michael P. Hoffmaster, in the lead role of artist Norman Bartholomew, drugs his model/mistress, hauls her into the aforementioned tub and then hacks her up with the aid of a chain saw to the accompaniment of Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools."

Granted, there's a twist to this -- otherwise, there'd be nothing to keep you from rushing to the nearest exit (a temptation, nonetheless). Bartholomew, as he explains to the local police sergeant, is an aficionado of famous historical murders, and he gets his kicks by pretending to re-enact them. Now, however, there happens to be someone he'd like to knock off for real.

According to an unwritten code among theater critics, it's bad form to give away the details of a mystery -- even when the mystery is as unmysterious as this one. I'm going to abide by that, although I will say that "Murderer" would be a bit more suspenseful if Hoffmaster, who doubles as director, speeded up the pace and didn't give in to the temptation to mug to the audience.

A little more restraint is shown by the other cast members -- Robert Doxzen as the sergeant; Laura McFarland as the artist's mistress; and Stacy Evans-Agnew as his wife (whose motives for wishing to remain married to this two-timing weirdo are questionable to say the least).

Incidentally, the playwright is also the author of "Sleuth," and the two scripts do share a couple similarities -- primarily the notion of playacting and of one man constructing an elaborate charade to outwit another.

But "Murderer" is far from as deft a work as "Sleuth." And this production, which happens to be a Maryland premiere, compounds that crime.

According to the program notes, Hoffmaster has wanted to do this play for a long time. But despite his printed explanation, the real mystery remains, why?


What: "Murderer."

Where: Harbour Theatre, 106 Bloomsbury Ave., Catonsville.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinee at 2 p.m. Jan. 31. Through Feb. 6.

Tickets: $8.

Call: (410) 358-4858.

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