THE ART OF MURDER: Die Laughing
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: CAT Theatre, 419 No. Wilkinson Rd., RVA 23227
Performances: September 27 – October 12, 2019
Ticket Prices: $25 Adults; $20 RVATA Members; $15 Students
Info: (804) 804-262-9760 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About halfway into his second line, I wanted Jack Brooks dead. The man, played by Aaron Willoughby, is so obnoxious, narcissistic, and misogynistic, I could never develop any sympathy for him. And it only gets worse after the opening scene, where he emerges from his isolation tank and proceeds to strut around in his swim trunks and an open robe. I don’t know Willoughby, a teacher at the Center for Communications and Media Relations at Varina High School who is performing in his first CAT production, but I attribute Brook’s rotten demeanor to Willoughby’s acting abilities – and the script – and not to any personal shortcomings.
Joe DiPietro’s Art of Murder, a 2000 Edgar Award winner for Best Mystery Play, is a comedy murder mystery full of plot twists and turns and laugh-out-loud moments. The problem is that with the exception of Kate, the Brook’s Irish maid, none of DiPietro’s characters is likeable. And even Kate, played by Charlotte Topp with a warm-as-fresh-baked-bread Irish accent, seems to have something up her sleeve, too.
Jack Brooks is despicable, and his treatment of Kate and his wife Annie, played by Emily Turner, make him a likely candidate for murder. Turner’s character is complex, in turn angry, beleaguered, soft, and sharp. The winding path of the plot keeps her deliberately enigmatic. We don’t like to see women abused, but Annie. . .well, you have to meet her and decide for yourself what her story really is.
There is nothing subtle or enigmatic about the Brooks’ art dealer and friend, Vincent Cummings. Cummings is played with over-the-top flamboyance by D.C. Hopkins (not to be confused with dl Hopkins). Without giving away too much of the mystery, Cummings walks unwittingly into a set up, but he brings his own baggage, so I couldn’t muster up much sympathy for him, either.
All-in-all, Art of Murder is 100 minutes of comedic dysfunction, kept moving along at a fairly swift pace by director Zachary Owens. It’s just a matter of who gets murdered, and when, and by whom – we don’t really care why.
Art of Murder, set in a large country house in Connecticut (a murder mystery standard), on an autumn evening about 10 years ago, opens with Jack and Annie, a wildly famous celebrity artist and his less-celebrated artist wife, awaiting the arrival of their art dealer, Vincent. Jack has a grudge against Vincent, and he and Annie have summoned Vincent for dinner, where they are plotting to execute Vincent’s murder. Or are they? At one point Annie says to Vincent (yes, Vincent, not Jack) “I’ve never killed anyone before.” His response is “It’s always good to try new things.”
There’s – possibly – murder and suicide, red herrings and mis-direction, a gun filled with blanks (or are they?) and props that turn up in the wrong place, an escape from a locked box, a disembodied voice, and all manner of deceptions. Elizabeth Allmon’s set is a standard murder mystery genre room but lacks the elegance of a large country estate owned by a wealthy artist, and Sheila Russ’ costumes for Annie and Jack look more like they came from a thrift store than from a couture boutique, as their lifestyle demands. One prominent prop, Jack’s isolation tank, is a roughhewn black box, more reminiscent of a coffin than a sleek example of spa-inspired technology. Alan Armstrong gets to have fun with lighting, and Hunter Mass gets creative with the sound design. Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” plays before the show starts, and “Ave Maria” ushers in the intermission. Aaron Orensky’s fight choreography is graphic, but I found it visually dissonant and unconvincing that Jack could so easily manhandle Vincent, given that Hopkins is so much more solidly built than Willoughby.
Art of Murder raises many questions. Most of the plot questions are eventually answered, leaving questions like what was the playwright thinking, and are the over-the-top performances intentional, and are the outbursts of anger meant to move the plot along by layering levity with a shot of reality, or were they thinly disguised rants by the playwright? There are only four people in the cast, so the possibilities – who gets murdered and who does the murdering – are not endless, yet DiPietro still manages to throw in some head-scratching surprises.
It’s interesting that of the current fall productions – and this one is the opening of CAT Theatre’s 56th consecutive season of providing community theater in Richmond – there are three mysteries, including Holmes & Watson a contemporary Sherlock Holmes style mystery at Swift Creek Mill (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/09/21/holmes-and-watson-its-not-what-you-think), and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder a comedic musical murder mystery at Virginia Rep (https://jdldancesrva.com/2019/10/03/a-gentlemans-guide-to-love-murder-whos-turn-to-die).
D.C. Hopkins, a graduate of Christopher Newport University, has toured with Virginia Rep for their shows “I Have a Dream” and “The Jungle Book.”
dl Hopkins is an award winning actor, veteran poet, and former Artistic Director of the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia who was aa founding member of Ernie McClintock’s Jazz Actors Theatre.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Ellie Wilder
Modern Personal Isolation Tank/Float Tank