Playwright Erik Jendresen has taken an odd and true story, added a layer of metaphysics and crafted an intriguing play, well directed and acted.
“The Killing of Michael Malloy” brings the audience into Eugene O’Neill territory. Like “The Iceman Cometh,” it takes place in a depressing East Coast bar (a 1933 speakeasy, actually), reflects on people’s illusions — and takes plenty of time to do it.
Bar owner Tony Marino (John Wesley Shipp) and friends Francis (Antony Alda), Hershey (Dan Gerrity), Danny (Lou Liberatore) and bartender Murphy (Douglas Roberts) have just split the rewards from killing a woman. Tony had married her and taken out life insurance on her, and they plied her with drink until she died three days later.
Alas, a local mobster (Seth Jaffe) takes the cash as payment for the money Tony owed him. So the five decide to murder another derelict for insurance. They settle on loser Michael Malloy (Maurice Roeves).
Trouble is, he doesn’t die from massive quantities of ingested turpentine. Nor from tainted food, horse liniment, antifreeze or any of a number of other methods. All the while, Malloy thinks these people are his friends.
Malloy just becomes more sober and philosophical, spooking Tony, who descends into alcoholism. Malloy’s transfiguration becomes the device that opens Tony’s repressed past, and in an O’Neill-size monologue, Tony bares his soul and lost hopes.
The cast is impeccable. Roeves creates in Malloy a drunk who’s willing to throw away any shred of dignity for a shot of liquor, yet, as the play advances, Malloy subtly earns something more than any other character: a sense of life and its worth.
Shipp takes a despicable character and imbues him with self-pity, if not understanding.
Alda, Gerrity, Liberatore and Roberts serve their characters well and, in a small but noteworthy role, Rita Taggart plays the only person with a conscience.
Director Ron Link drives these buzzard-class people head-on to their end of the line. Yael Pardess’ dark, cavelike set, the costume design by Kitty Murphy and sound design by Scott Watson evoke a total sense of the ’30s.
At 2 1/2 hours with intermission, the play is not a marathon, but some of the long speeches make it feel like one, as does the predictability of the action. Once the audience sees what’s happening, it’s no surprise where it’s going.
Nonetheless, Jendresen infuses much of the language with poetry and a clear sense of irony. In the end, it’s not the action one remembers but some of the characters, and the two leads’ discoveries.