Stephen Sondheim has composed songs about presidential assasins, demon barbers and ravenous wolves on his way to becoming the preeminent figure in contemporary musical theater. But none of those damaged souls can match the seven-plus deadly sinners he and collaborator George Furth have conjured up for his first nonmusical play. If the show doesn’t quite live up to its promise of being a “comedy thriller,” that’s because the story it tells is simply too dark and disturbing.
“The Doctor Is Out” does not seem like a new direction for Sondheim so much as a diversion, a narrative puzzle this notorious gamester is working out between musical projects. This lends a certain schematic rigidity to the play that, coupled with the absence of any remotely heroic characters, makes it more a play to admire than love.
The structure, which will be familiar to anyone who’s read an Agatha Christie mystery, or seen Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” was inspired by the party games Sondheim used to create in his spare time.
In the case of “The Doctor Is Out,” seven diverse members of a therapy group arrive at their leader’s dilapidated Manhattan office, where they find the shrink deceased. This assorted lot (are they archetypes, or stereotypes?) must find the killer, who almost certainly is one of them, and resolve things neatly before the end of the second act.
Intercut with this story is the tale of a seriously screwed-up young man (William Ragsdale, of Fox’s “Herman’s Head”), who may or may not be linked to one of the group members.
But Sondheim and Furth (who previously collaborated on the landmark “Company” and the woefully unappreciated “Merrily We Roll Along”) aren’t satisfied with following any simple formula. Their ambitions are bigger, their sense of playfulness more developed. So, contrary to convention, the killer is revealed not at the climax but at the end of the first act . . . maybe.
The second act plays with the audience’s assumptions. To say much more would spoil the surprises, but suffice it to say no one gets off unseathed.
The actors do a fine job of breathing life into these wrecks, even if they are little more than types.
The standout is John Rubinstein, still one of our most versatile actors. He plays a smooth yet utterly vile politician who is the prime suspect, at once funny and despicable.
Josh Mostel as a gluttonous art dealer, Becky Ann Baker as a lusty restaurant hostess, Kandis Chappell as a prideful home shopping channel huckster and Terrence Mann (trading in his Beast from “Beauty & . . . ” at the Shubert for an even beastlier role) as a greedy real estate developer also shine.
Jack O’Brien, artistic director at the Old Globe (where Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” had its world premiere), directs this show with a deft touch, and Douglas W. Schmidt’s well-appointed set serves the story without drawing undue attention to itself.
Ultimately, though, the focus of this show is on the two authors, who use a conventional murder-mystery form to create a darkly humorous exploration of evil and corruption. You won’t miss the songs from this Sondheim show, but you might just miss the powerful human insight and emotional power of his best shows.