KPBS AIRDATE: September 20, 1995
It’s not really about determining whodunit. It’s more about deciding if the killer is gonna get away with it. Brilliant composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, he of the arch phrase, the arcane lyric, the often-less-than-hummable melody, is also a consummate puzzle-master. In “The Doctor is Out,” co-written with George Furth, his collaborator on “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” Sondheim shows us he really knows the score when it comes to murder mysteries.
The world premiere at the Old Globe is billed as a comedy thriller. It has no Sondheim music, but plenty of clever plot-turns and cunning switchbacks. It has many laughs and a good deal of suspense. But there is not one character you like or care about, so if all of them croak, it’s all the same to you. Very loosely based on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” the play is both artful and crafty, but it’s not half as scintillating or emotionally engaging as Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth,” for which Sondheim himself was the inspiration.
The production is beautiful, but not flawless. Douglas Schmidt’s design is deliciously detailed, but it revolves periodically for no defensible reason. The lighting and sound and rain on the roof are wonderful. Director Jack O’Brien has given his talented ensemble lots of whimsical stage business, from which much of the humor springs.
The most interesting, really fascinating, part about the whole affair is its cynical take on America. These prototypes, this deadly and self-destructive septet gathered for group therapy in their New York psychiatrist’s office, span the age, gender, racial, social and professional barracuda continuum of our country, in all its gruesome glory. Interestingly, gay men are conspicuously absent, though a crude and casual lesbian remark is tossed off irrelevantly. And it’s not always clear why these seven were chosen for this murderous group; the exposition and individual explanations fairly gallop by.
As collective introspective, it’s not a pretty picture. As an evening of theater, it’s a provocative intellectual exercise.
Next door, there’s another cerebral spectacle: “Uncommon Players, A Shakespeare Celebration.” Dakin Matthews has created and directed an ingenious and urbane valentine to the Bard and his preeminent players. The quick-witted conceit is actors’ purgatory, where thespians are tormented for poor choices and poor performances. There are rules in this theatrical fantasy-land: one must respond to any comment in Shakespearean iamb, either maintaining the topic or the source play of the preceding quote.
The first act is a hilarious romp, with various celebrated actors through time, making dramatic exits and entrances: from Lawrence Olivier to Eva La Gallienne. The second act turns more serious, and the speeches get longer.
But the magnificently versatile foursome — Richard Easton, Katherine McGrath, Jonathan McMurtry and Lillian Garrett-Groag — seem to be having a ball. It’s the kind of perverse fun actors and theater academics love. As for the less well-versed among us, well, the scenes, speeches and sonnets alone are delightful, even if you don’t know all the sources. Prepare yourself for plenty of in-jokes and theatrical self-absorption, but also bracing mental gymnastics.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.