Over its six years of existence, the Barrington Stage Company has revealed more flair for producing musicals than straight plays, in part because the Consolati Performing Arts Center in which it performs is less hospitable to straight plays than musicals because of its wide stage and unintimate auditorium. It’s not surprising, then, that the BSC is actively searching for a home of its own that’s a genuine theater rather than a school auditorium. Nor is it surprising that though the BSC is giving Douglas J. Cohen’s 1986 comedy-murder musical “No Way To Treat a Lady” an often highly acceptable production, because it has a cast of only four its effectiveness is compromised by the Consolati’s less than ideal ambiance and acoustics as well as an ear-offending sound system.
This is a shame because Cohen’s triple-threat musical — he wrote its book, music and lyrics based on the William Goldman novel that gave rise to the 1968 movie — is a cleverly conceived and created piece, all four actors in it are giving their all, and three of them, Sandy Binion, Bradley Dean and Adam Heller, are offering performances of zesty skill. Unfortunately, Karen Murphy, who is asked to play at least five different characters, does what too many actors do in such situations; she overacts all of them to the point where each one is a shrill, raucous, over-the-top caricature. Clearly director Rob Ruggiero hasn’t worked as well with Murphy as with the other three actors.
Set in 1970s New York City, “No Way to Treat a Lady” brings together two men with monstrously overbearing mothers who, in the opening number, both sing “I Need a Life.” Add a young woman with wealth, beauty and intelligence but no Mr. Right and you have a fraught threesome. One of the men, Kit (Dean), is an out-of-work actor whose Broadway-star mother has just died and whose one desire in life is to hit the headlines in the New York Times. He does so by becoming a multiple murderer. The other man, Morris Brummel (Heller), is a middle-aged NYPD detective still living at home with is widowed mother. The young woman, who works in an art gallery, is Sarah (Binion).
Tongue firmly in cheek, Cohen plays happily with the situation in his book, lyrics and music, the latter ranging widely through jazz, love ballads, waltzes, patter songs and homages to Sondheim without losing its own individuality. The lyrics, which, sadly, can’t always be deciphered through the aural assault, seem to be genuinely witty. One line immediately springs to mind: “Is this passion or too much caffeine?” Fortunately the cast relishes the songs and the band, which has one more member than the cast, is particularly lively under Darren R. Cohen’s direction from his keyboard.
Rob Bissinger’s structural Manhattan setting with its doors and windows and silhouetted skyline allows the production to flow smoothly but is a bit dour. And Murell Horton’s costumes aren’t always as apt as they should be. At one point the murderer refers to the detective’s brown suit when the latter is clearly wearing brown trousers and a sports coat.
As sophisticated Sarah, Binion gives the love affair between her character and Heller’s detective a heady dose of reality while singing out with tremendous style. Heller looks exactly right as her Brummel while projecting his character’s work obsessions and tolerance of his mother-from-hell with a suitable sense of humor. And Dean as the killer delivers a real tour-de-force as he dons an endless variety of disguises from Irish priest to Spanish dancer to French waiter to a towering drag version of Sarah. He has a particularly fine time of it when he lets loose and launches into his big show-biz number “Once More From the Top.” It’s understandable why both Binion and Dean are going straight into the new Broadway musical “Jane Eyre” from here.
“No Way to Treat a Lady” has been produced around the country and elsewhere, including an Off-Broadway revival in 1996 and a London production in 1998, has been nominated for awards, and has been recorded. It clearly reveals Cohen’s very real musical theater abilities, which give rise to added hopes for such upcoming new musicals as “The Big Time,” for which Douglas Carter Beane is writing the book and Cohen the music and lyrics, and “Children’s Letters to God” with music by David Evans, book by Stuart Hample and lyrics by Cohen.