Bad Behavior

Assassinations, character and otherwise, at the Rep and at ACT.

How much cash does it take to stage a great play? Beaucoup and bupkis, as respectively proven by two must-see new shows, ACT's splashy, pricey The Women and the Rep's artfully frugal Murderers. First, the lower-priced spread. Murderers was actually designed for a budget even tighter than that of the Rep, which is springing for a shabbily evocative Carey Wong set and big-deal director Steven Dietz. The play began as a half-hour monologue performed by its author, Jeffrey Hatcher, on a bare stage at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Later, he added two more monologues, all three being the quippy confessions of not-very-scary killers who stalk Florida's Riddle Key Luxury Senior Retirement Living Center and Golf Course.

It's slick, silly, shallow satire, but polished and precisely plotted, reflecting Hatcher's experience writing for TV's Columbo and the spritzy Heath Ledger film farce Casanova. The first monologue, about a guy who marries his mother-in-law so her daughter can inherit her dough tax-free, is the best written, blending the tones of Double Indemnity and W.M. Spackman's An Armful of Warm Girl in a fruity confection that will give you a tropical buzz. Here's the gigolo hero on his bride, Spiff: "Wearing one of her Ultrasuede pantsuits with the Nehru tunic and military buttons, she looks like Diana Vreeland's idea of Dr. No."

As the gigolo, Mark Anders breezily reveals how he got away with murder and dryly impersonates all the unseen dramatis personae of this faux-noir, from Spiff to the denizens of the Blue Hair Cafe to the cop he's got to con. It's a performance as sharp as Anders' natty tux, though marred by a few distracting fluffs.

Better yet is Joan Porter Hollander as a doomed dame with a wickedly intricate plan to get back at her Viagra-fueled husband and his reignited old flame before the Reaper can claim her. Hollander exudes the class of an old-time Broadway actress, because that's what she is. Her style is both old-fashioned and vividly in the moment.

But it's the third, slightest monologue that soars—all thanks to a star-making performance by Sarah Rudinoff. OK, she was already a local legend, but she remakes her name as Minka Lupino, obsessive fan of murder-mystery author Jay G. Garland and a girl who cain't say no to a worthy murder victim in real life. Minka works for Riddle Key, and she radiates good will. It's just that she finds killing people is sometimes the only decent thing to do.

And how could we disbelieve her when it's Rudinoff talking? Her slightly smoky, highly musical voice communicates an irresistibly infectious enthusiasm and a loopy purity. She's heavy, but onstage she seems weightless, a bouncy, dimpled cartoon, aloft on the giddy helium of her verbal spiel. I'll bet they're not paying her as much as the entire budget of Twelfe Night on the Rep stage next door, but if they were, it'd still be a bargain.

I don't even want to know how much ACT spent on The Women. Too scary! They did fund-raising on top of fund-raising for years, just to plow it all into a 16-actor, 44-role, 100-costume show so risky even author Clare Boothe Luce was too frightened to attend its 1936 opening. It's also risky to produce a show upstaged by an immortal movie version—I'll never forget the horror of Ashland's The Philadelphia Story, where the actors were dwarfed and stomped by the memory of their cinematic doppelgängers. ACT further upped the ante by using a new computerized automation system to make bits of Matthew Smucker's elaborate period set zoom across the stage. I was haunted by a long-ago mechanized turntable in an expensive Rep show that went berserk, whirling in circles, flinging actors and props in all directions.

It could've been a nightmare, but ACT's The Women is a dream, glossy as a silk pillow. A new impressive set pops up or whirs out, and then another, with unmechanical fluidity. Several of the actors put their movie counterparts to shame, and it's so all of a piece—a theater piece—that movie memories don't threaten it.

Director Warner Shook puts on a quality catfight, overcoming the play's central problem: It is, as the film's director, George Cukor, noted, "preposterous." The saintly heroine, Mary Haines (Suzanne Bouchard), dumps her hubby for cheating, but her mom (Elizabeth Huddle) tells her tolerating adultery is a wise wife's duty. Mary's niceness is too vacuous, and the play's moral—humiliation is a small price to pay for staying married—is jarring.

Granted, that was the reality in the playwright's day. Clare tried to get her impotent millionaire drunk of a first husband to stay married and let her keep a lover; his refusal, and remarriage to a younger girl, enraged her. Life was all about keeping scandal under wraps.

What's bad about the play is the dishonest, dead, sentimental moralizing. What makes it immortal is its immoral honesty about scandals run amok, and the sheer amoral joy of the verbal fencing and double-crossing. Clare really did overhear respectable ladies dishing life-wrecking dirt in the Morocco Club ladies' room. The play's not-nice scenes, from Reno to powder rooms that ought to be called gunpowder rooms, still ring true, and Shook's cast mostly nails them.

Anne Allgood is pitch-perfect hilarious as a perpetually pregnant chain-smoker mom who taps ashes on her nursing newborn's head. Deborah Fialkow scores as a pragmatic Reno home wrecker in a Louise Brooks bob. As Mary's rival, Jennifer Lyon lacks Joan Crawford's brass balls, but her more kittenish white-trash purr does the trick. Julie Briskman has big fun as Mary's most Judas-like friend, Sylvia, though she lacks Roz Russell's ruthless, fearless comic savagery in the film; Briskman's Sylvia has too much of the Pollyanna quality of her role in ACT's 2004 production of Enchanted April (the success of which inspired Shook to reunite that cast, plus many more dames of distinction, for this production). She should put more mean in her funny.

Suzy Hunt goes to town as the quintuply-married countess who can't keep her heart off younger men. As the manicurist who spills the infidelity beans to Mary, exemplary Annette Toutonghi reminds me of Amanda Plummer in her little-girl-voice mode at the start of Pulp Fiction. Laura Kenny is a kick in the dungarees as the Reno gal who puts up the divorcées. The scene of the Haines' servants (Marianne Owen and Elise Hunt) discussing their employers' divorce is far more charged and poignant than the scene in the film.

In the problematic central role, Bouchard is—problematic. She may be Seattle's most elegant actor, and can she wear those knockout clothes by David Zinn! She's perfect for the part of Mary, and all wrong—too cool and refined in a part that's cold and abstract. Her chemistry with Huddle, her real-life mentor, adds a touching emotional authenticity quite absent from the flick's mom and daughter. She's better than Norma Shearer at first, but Shearer was a little more convincing in the crucial transformation, when Mary unveils her famous scarlet nails and learns to fight for her man.

ACT's The Women would be better if it drew more blood. It sure draws laughs, though, and standing ovations that are, for once in Seattle, earned. Don't miss it, and don't ask what it cost. Oh, but I'd better mention that the female audience members apparently felt an element of competition with the sumptuously accoutred cast. This is one show you can't afford to attend underdressed.

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