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Marylouise Burke, Brent Langdon, and Kristine Nielsen give excellent performances in Jeffrey Hatcher's humorous triptych of monologues about death. logo
Kristine Nielsen, Brent Langdon, and Marylouise Burke
in Murderers
(© Mark Garvin)
In 1995, the Philadelphia Theatre Company presented the local premiere of Jeffrey Hatcher's Three Viewings, a trio of monologues all set in the same small-town funeral home. Now, Hatcher returns to PTC for the East Coast premiere of Murderers, another humorous triptych in which death plays a prominent role.

Smartly directed by Michael Bush, and beautifully acted by Marylouise Burke, Brent Langdon, and Kristine Nielsen, Murderers takes place at the Riddle Key Retirement Center in Riddle, Florida, where we're told "everybody eats by 5pm and goes to bed before sundown." Death is a regular visitor to Riddle, but in Hatcher's crafty comedy, few of the residents are dying from natural causes.

For these three monologues, Hatcher has done away with the fourth wall, a decision that allows for a close bond to be established between the characters and audience. Each of the three storytellers relate to us as they would a trusted friend. All three freely admit their guilt, but they are so personable we never condemn their actions. In fact, they are about as delightful a group of killers as one is likely to encounter.

The first of the three tales, entitled "The Well Dressed Man Is a Murderer," concerns one of Riddle's more youthful residents, the urbane Gerald Halverston (Langdon). Gerald's tale is filled with many surprising turns, so the less revealed here the better. Suffice to say that the charismatic Langdon relates his story with considerable wit and charm and his presentational delivery establishes the production's tone nicely.

In the second act, Hatcher introduces us to the loveable Lucy Stickler (Burke) in the highly-amusing "Margaret Faydle Comes to Town." A wonderfully unassuming elderly woman, Lucy is stuck in a marriage that has been going downhill since the arrival of Margaret Faydle, a lecherous belle with a penchant for outlandish hats and other women's husbands. It's easily the strongest of the play's three acts and Burke's performance is dazzling. Speaking in a raspy, halting voice, Burke's Lucy is a frumpy mass of nervous ticks and gestures, yet she is hugely engaging.

Burke is a tough act to follow, but Kristine Nielsen more than holds her own as the title character in the play's third act, "Match Wits with Minka Lupino." Unlike Gerald and Lucy, Minka doesn't live at Riddle, but instead works there in the Members Office. An avenging angel of sorts, Minka deals harshly with those whom she views as exploiting the community's elderly residents. It's an entertaining story, but Hatcher's plotting is at times contrived and the conclusion is forced. Nevertheless, Nielsen's astute performance is utterly enchanting.

One of the piece's greatest strengths is its strong sense of place. James Noone's scenic design is more practical than evocative, but Hatcher's specific and descriptive language nevertheless gives us a clear picture of Riddle, a gated community where the residents travel about in electric golf carts that whiz them between the pharmacy, seniors' center, doctor's office, and golf course, and where they enjoy a relaxed but resigned existence.

Moreover, Bush makes the most of the play's use of direct address. His staging is comfortably intimate, with the production's sense of closeness enhanced by the small Plays and Players Theater. True, some of the jokes intended to produce gales of laughter instead provoke only a smirk or a weak smile. But even when Hatcher's script falters, his well-drawn characters remain involving. In the end, what's most appealing about Murderers isn't the stories, but rather the people who tell them.

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