Sunday, February 3, 2013

Off Off Broadway: Moose Murders

Steven Carl McCasland and Brittany Velotta in MOOSE MURDERS.  Photo by Samantha Mercado Tudda.

My wife, Sue, fully intended to accompany me to yesterday’s performance of Moose Murders by Arthur Bicknell at the Connelly Theater on East 4th Street but she awoke with such a bad head cold that she reluctantly had to beg off.  So I was left to attend this revival of what has come to be known as “the most notorious flop in Broadway history” by myself.  I did - and Sue turned out to be the lucky one.

This play is absolutely appalling with no redeeming social value.  When it first opened on Broadway in 1983, it received such scathing reviews that it closed after just one performance (following 13 previews).  Clive Barnes of the New York Post wrote that it was “so indescribably bad that I do not intend to waste anyone’s time by describing it.”  Frank Rich of The New York Times subsequently referred to it as “the worst play I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage.”

Why, then, has The Beautiful Soup Theater Collective chosen to revive this fiasco?

Well, to be generous, one might recall Samuel Johnson’s description of the re-marriage of a man who had been unhappily married as “the triumph of hope over experience” and suggest that the revival of a bad play might fall into a similar category.  Or, to be less generous, one might recall the definition of “insanity” widely attributed to Albert Einstein: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  I’d tend to go with Einstein on this one.

To be fair, it’s not completely clear that Beautiful Soup realized that they were about to “do the same thing over again.”  According to the company’s original press release, the play had been “significantly rewritten and revised” for this production and the play’s full title on the current program is Moose Murders (Shamelessly Revised) so maybe Beautiful Soup really had reason to believe that they were about to stage something different.  On the other hand, Steven Carl McCasland, the company’s Artistic Director, stated in a program note: “This is a true Moose Murders.  No mocking here.  No camp.  Just a moose, a mystery and lots of history!”  So how different did he really think it could be?

As it turns out, it clearly wasn’t different enough.  Admittedly, I never saw the 1983 production so I’m not really in a position to say whether this production is any better or worse than the original.  Maybe it really is an improvement but, if so, it is hard for me to imagine how the original could have been any worse than this, given the retention of the play’s basic plot structure and cast of characters.

The original script for Moose Murders referred to it as a “Mystery Farce in Two Acts” and that’s pretty much what it still is – or, at least what it aspires to be.  Set in a lodge in the Adirondacks, with a zany cast of characters, the play seems intended to be a farcical parody of such classic Agatha Christie mysteries as The Mousetrap and Ten Little Indians.  But it really doesn’t work.  The story line is absurd and the characters offensively preposterous.

As the play begins, we are introduced to the singer Snooks Keene and her blind accompanist husband, Howie, who had been entertainers at the Wild Moose Lodge but who have just been given their walking papers by the lodge’s caretaker, Joe Buffalo Dance, now that the lodge has been sold to the wealthy Hedda Holloway.  Hedda shows up with her family in tow: Stinky, her drug-addled son who seems obsessed with the idea of having sex with his mother; her younger daughter, Gay, who might be taken to be Shirley Temple’s evil twin; her flaky married older daughter, Lauraine Holloway Fay; Lauraine’s husband, Nelson Fay; Hedda’s husband, Sidney, a wheelchair-bound, gauze-swaddled, quadriplegic who is apparently in a vegetative state; together with Nurse Dagmar, who is there to care for Sidney.

The inevitable storm arrives and the bridge is washed away, preventing Snooks and Howie from leaving and assuring that they and Joe Buffalo Dance and the entire Holloway entourage all will be forced to spend the night together under the same roof.  The characters agree to play a murder mystery card game, the lights go on and off, one after another are murdered or, if not, at least strangled, hogtied, shot, bludgeoned or, at a minimum, threatened with a meat cleaver. 

But who is the murderer?

By this time, who cares?

When McCasland prided himself on having eschewed mockery and camp in staging this production, he may have made a big mistake.  It might have been a lot better if he had created a self-referentially mocking and campish production rather than attempting unsuccessfully to extract something of theatrical value from material that had none to provide.

Brittany Velotta, who played the part of Snooks as if she were Marisa Tomei on steroids, is the only cast member deserving of mention.  She brought a level of enthusiasm and ebullience to the play that I thought was otherwise lacking.  It is possible, of course, that one or more of the other cast members did as well, or perhaps even better, than might have been expected of them, given the material they had to work with, but if so, it was sadly impossible to discern.

So what lesson might we take away from all this?

Maybe just that sometimes it's best to let sleeping moose lie.

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