Unpleasant characters are thriller fodder, and if unpleasantness redressed by death were everything, “Getting Away With Murder” would be a masterpiece, or at least an exemplar of that bastard genre, the comedy thriller. But as this play by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth is utterly thrill-free and almost utterly laugh-free, masterpiece it ain’t.
The prospects for the show are about the same as the prospects for the dramatis personae, most of whom die at least twice in the course of the evening. It’s a goner.
Since Sondheim is the author of some of the cleverest lyrics ever set to his own music, and Furth is the author of the problematic books of Sondheim’s “Company” and “Merrily We Roll Along,” as well as such awful stand-alones as “Twigs” and “Precious Sons,” one might assume that for “Getting Away With Murder”– the play was called “The Doctor Is Out” during its premiere last fall at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego — Sondheim wrote the music and Furth wrote the words. But there is no music in “Getting Away With Murder.”
There is, however, a strange, if evocative, set by Douglas Schmidt depicting the top-floor apartment of an Upper West Side building in an advanced state of decrepitude. Stage right is a living room arranged for group therapy; stage left is the office of a psychiatrist, Dr. Conrad Bering (Herb Foster, in his second completely thankless role of the season, following “Sacrilege”). Surrounding is a hallway with two elevator entrances, one of which is doorless and secured only by an X of police tape.
It is a Saturday evening, and the members of Dr. Bering’s group begin to arrive: Dossie Lustig (Christine Ebersole), a chatty nymphomaniac; Pamela Prideaux (Kandis Chappell), haughty society matron; Vassili Laimorgos (Josh Mostel), voracious slob; Gregory Reed (Terrence Mann), real estate tycoon; Dan Gerard (Frankie Faison), trigger-happy cop; Nam-Jun Vuong (Jodi Long), a professor with a persecution complex; and Martin Chisholm (John Rubinstein), a political consultant aspiring to the mayoralty.
The plot turns initially on the doctor’s failure to arrive for the group session, and the subsequent discovery of his bludgeoned body in the inner office. A setup worthy of Agatha Christie, in which all of the patients are suspect, leads to interminable examination and cross-examination of the patients by one another. By the end of the first act, whodunit is revealed, and even why.
We might reasonably figure the play is over at that point,but no such luck. Though the murderer’s identity doesn’t change, the group dynamics do, requiring much more arcana about datebooks and telephone messages and the like. There is one suspenseful sequence in which the murderer tries to lure a patient who may have figured things out to a certain death at that empty elevator shaft, but that’s as close to a thrill as “Getting Away With Murder” ever offers.
The central character is Chisholm, whose wanton son (William Ragsdale) has inadvertently killed a young woman (Michelle Hurd), and is himself inadvertently killed when his father gives him a sedative that reacts with the array of drugs in his system.
One would think all this trauma would weigh heavily on Chisholm, but again, no such luck: As written and as played by Rubinstein, Martin is a cold opportunist, an emotional void. The same holds true for the others, with the exception of Ebersole, who keeps trying desperately to pump some life into Dossie. This play will become the latest article of evidence for those who believe that Sondheim’s characters have no souls.
What’s so surprising, given the Sondheim pedigree, is the play’s gracelessness. The dialogue is flat and anachronistic, the situation never compels. It’s terminally boring.
Jack O’Brien is a wonderful director of ensembles with complex business to transact — cf. last season’s “Hapgood” at Lincoln Center Theater — and these are wonderful actors in a wonderful-looking production. But “Getting Away With Murder” is all icky and no play.