Til death do us art
The Art of Murder
America’s most prolific playwright is also one of Reno Little Theater’s favorites. Joe DiPietro, author of Over the River and Through the Woods, an RLT performance I reviewed in January, appears to thrive on the character study. The Art of Murder is no exception. But while this show, directed by David Tolles, is a fun little thriller, DiPietro’s characterizations and some miscasting occasionally throw the show off kilter.
Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play, The Art of Murder tells the story of Jack and Annie Brooks, a married pair of artists—one successful, one not. In their home, deep in the Connecticut woods, Jack (Marcus Devaun Rucks) spends hours in a coffin-like isolation tank, where “Que Sera Sera” plays in a continuous, blaring loop. He’s made millions selling his pretentious art to pretentious people, doing bizarre things because it seems to be what people think artists are supposed to do. He’s world-weary, jaded, cynical, manipulative, greedy and egocentric.
Meanwhile, Annie, played by theater veteran Jessica Laura Nicholas, is the somewhat subservient wife whose work can never seem to measure up to that of her world-renowned, often cruel husband.
Desperate to earn some recognition from both Jack and the art world in general, Annie the artist crafts a plot that becomes this rollercoaster ride of a play.
I have a hard time believing that Nicholas’ Annie would be in awe of Jack, who has supposedly for years been her mentor and role model, when he is so clearly a teenager. I simply can’t accept that this young man is the greedy, manipulative, millionaire artist who belittles his wife or plays “grab ass” with their Irish maid. The casting decision to juxtapose these two actors as a married couple puts Rucks at an unfair disadvantage right from the start.
I also struggle with the character of the maid, Kate (played by Lindsey Kraft), who points out several times that she “studied chemistry at university,” and who insists that she’s insulted by Jack’s advances. Yet her too-tight mini-dresses and tales of teasing her boyfriend tell another story. Kate appears to be neither shocked by her employers’ bizarre behavior, nor malevolent enough to get involved in the chicanery that ensues—what to make of her? Nonetheless, Kraft’s Irish accent is spot on, and she makes the best of a tough role.
In a Deathtrap-like scenario, the Brooks invite Vincent Cummings, Jack’s art broker, to their home for dinner and some light confrontation about why Jack’s latest work, “Study in Red No. 4,” has yet to sell. Matthew Polasko, a remarkably talented newcomer, plays Vincent, a hysterical, flamboyantly gay, almost Charles Nelson Reilly-esque publicity guru who provides most of the show’s laughs.
The twists and turns in DiPietro’s story eventually involve blackmail, a few murders—some of which are merely performance art—and a suicide, keeping this short play—90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission—moving at a brisk pace. And there’s quite a bit of comedy and thrilling special effects, including gunshots, to enjoy.
I find the “artists are more popular when dead” idea a little overdone, but what’s interesting, and what DiPietro—and, by extension, Polasko as Vincent—capture well here is how easily the public is manipulated by slick artifice and know-nothing publicists, and how impressed we are by those who shock for effect. Those weighty concepts demand a lot—sometimes too much—of performers who must grapple with the gravity of DiPietro’s words, while still making us laugh—a tall order, under any circumstances.