Arlington’s provocative American Century Theater opened its latest intriguing blast from the American past last weekend at Gunston Theater II. On tap this time: Jules Feiffer’s 1967 bizarrely witty comedy-drama Little Murders.
Set amidst the time of the decline and fall of America’s largest city, not to mention the Vietnam War, the Great Society, and political assassinations that seemed at the time to never end, this manic, darkly comic production brings back the kind of nostalgia that most Americans who lived through those times would probably rather not have.
Jules Feiffer is probably not a household word with today’s younger demographic. But back in the 1960s and 1970s, he was the very last word in satirical chic, at least among the East Coast literati. He started out as an apprentice cartoonist in the 1950s but quickly scored success in the then brand-new Village Voice, a distinctly leftish tabloid that thrived on surprisingly good investigative journalism leavened with snarky exposes and reviews of politicians, entertainers, and Manhattan elites.
Feiffer’s lazy, languid line drawings, together with hand penned dialogue that ranged from the cutting to the blasé, seemed to embody the artistic and political spirit of the age—or at least of New York’s Greenwich Village. His cartoons quickly became a popular feature of the Voice, and could increasingly be discovered in other publications as well.
But during his long career, Feiffer refused to rest on his laurels, expanding into prose, live theater, and even into the chancy world of Hollywood script writing. One early product of his theatrical endeavors was Little Murders, which was based on the violence, chaos, and near anarchy into which New York had been sinking from the mid-1960s onwards.
Under its dapper, debonair, but highly ineffective mayor, faux Republican John Lindsay (1966-1973), New York in many ways had begun to resemble a city more like current day Detroit, passing the point of no return both socially and economically. The middle class was slowly fleeing the city.
Increasingly dysfunctional, it was fast declining into a hotbed of crime and decay, characterized on the surface by endless public employee union strikes, particularly by the sanitation workers whose wildcat walkouts resulted in periodic Matterhorns of festering, rat-infested trash that clogged the city’s streets.
Worse was the increasing ineffectiveness of law enforcement. The murder rate began to skyrocket, with many of the shootings entirely at random. Murders increased to such an extent that no area of the city felt safe. New Yorkers scurried home as fast as they could after work and hid behind multiple-locked apartment doors until emerging once again for work each morning.
Feiffer, like many New Yorkers, had taken about all he could take, and out popped Little Murders. An instant hit in New York, it eventually found its way to a Hollywood film version, released in 1971.
Little Murders is based, as so many good comedies are, on the frantic antics of a highly dysfunctional family—the Newquists—who reside in a second or third level street-facing apartment located somewhere in the middle to lower-middle economic belt of the city.
Mom Marjorie Newquist (Emily Morrison) is a yakkity, emotional mess. She can’t shut up for a minute and it only takes a slightly ill advised observation to reduce her to a puddle of self-pitying crocodile tears.
Her grouchy husband (Craig Miller) isn’t much better. He hates his given name of “Carol” (which actually, with a “c” or a “k” is the Polish version of Carl). Its deployment by the unwitting inevitably sets off a blistering diatribe. As if that’s not enough, Carol lives daily in fear of losing his income, his job, or both. Tension, pressure, pain as they used to say in an old aspirin commercial.
Making matters worse for Carol are his kids. His chief irritant is son Kenny (Evan Crump), who lazily minces about the house like some kind of gay dude, which, in fact, he is. Which only further irritates his straight-laced dad.
Daughter Patsy (Robin Covington) is the opposite kind of problem. Cheeky, self-assured to the point of obnoxiousness, and unbearably bossy, her forced sunniness—the mirror image of her mom’s tragic vision of life—always catches Carol just the wrong way.
Mix in Patsy’s latest boyfriend-fiancé Alfred Chamberlain (James Finley) and Carol’s brains start boiling toward nuclear meltdown. It’s not bad enough that the hulking Alfred rarely speaks, staring forward with dead eyes as if in a permanent catatonic state. He also doesn’t mind getting beat up almost daily on the street which causes Carol’s neurons to almost visibly arc and short.
If a lot of this happy nonsense reminds you of the breakthrough TV series “All in the Family,” that’s not surprising. It’s clear that Feiffer’s politically incorrect working class family was an inspiration for Archie Bunker and crew just a few years later.
But Feiffer’s world, unlike Archie’s, involves constant fear and menace. City street noises outside the Newquists’ windows are interrupted, with alarming frequency, by single and multiple gunshots, some of which randomly whiz into the family’s living room unannounced. Just as disconcerting, at random moments the Newquists’ onstage living area first flickers and then is engulfed in darkness as the city suffers through the kind of random power outages you’d expect only in third world countries. The whole play is like Murphy’s Law writ large.
American Century’s production of Little Murders largely succeeds because its cast gets under the skin of these eccentric characters.
Brittle, harried, occasionally paranoid, and always bordering on the hysterical, Emily Morrison’s Marjorie is the quintessence of the hovering, smothering, omnipresent New York mom. In trying to smooth domestic matters over, her manic approach to everything inevitably makes things worse .
As her sullen, fatalistic husband, Carol, Craig Miller comes across as a TV pilot version of Archie Bunker. Unlike Archie, Miller’s Carol is already a defeated man, always looking sullenly over his shoulder, anxiously awaiting the next rotten thing that’s going to happen to an honest New York working man as the thieves, con men, takers and schemers seemingly collude to destroy the city and with it, what little happiness Carol has left.
Echoing Marjorie’s gene pool rather than her father’s, Robin Cunningham, as Patsy, is also hyperactive. She’s bossy while always wanting the best for everyone—as she defines the word. Her cockeyed optimism, however, along with her conviction that she, personally, can alter others’ characters to suit, is, in the end her fatal flaw.
As younger brother Kenny, the gay misfit of the family, Evan Crump has less material to work with, and boasts perhaps the weakest lines penned by the playwright. Nonetheless, Crump makes the most of them with slapstick shtick made slightly creepy by physically hinting at some past incestuous fun with his sister.
But perhaps the most interesting character in this production is Patsy’s reluctant fiancé, Alfred Chamberlain. As played by James Finley, Alfred is a quiet sensation the moment he steps onstage. Tall, substantial, and imposing, Finley’s Alfred bears an astonishing physical resemblance to a younger Lurch, the spooky butler from the old TV “Addams Family” sitcom. It’s a nice bit of type casting. But as an added bonus, Finley can really act.
With hollowed, blackened eyes and a blank stare, Alfred is at the outset the very model of the kind of New Yorker who’s been numbed by the city’s ubiquitous violence. In spite of his imposing build, Alfred suffers fools (and daily beatings) gladly. He knows he can clobber any of the thugs, bullies, and muggers, but no longer sees the point as it won’t change anything.
While Alfred doesn’t get much dialogue in this play’s first half, he doesn’t need it, as his body language and demeanor tells us all we really need to know about where his head is at. It’s a remarkable, understated performance, made all the more interesting when Finley’s character suddenly evolves in the play’s second stanza.
Mood, pacing, and blocking are crisp and brisk under Ellen Dempsey’s able direction. The only time the play begins to drag is during Lt. Practice’s weird, apocalyptic monologue in the drama’s late innings. It’s an example of the kind of blather one still encounters on “Saturday Night Live,” an initially funny bit that gets tedious because it’s overwritten and doesn’t know when to stop.
But the bottom line is this: if you can withstand annoying but riotously funny characters, constantly flickering lights and blackouts, and loud gunshots when you least expect it, Little Murders is just the play for you. By bringing back a bit of not-too-distant American urban history and by unselfconsciously underlining our current, perhaps even worse signs of urban decay and decadence, Little Murders is a 1960s black comedy that’s suddenly fresh and new. Slick, brave, and fearlessly acted, it’s well worth your time and attention.
by Jules Feiffer
Directed by Ellen Dempsey
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours including intermission