The Usual Suspects

25. January, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #3: The Zahsman Murders, Arclight Repertory Theatre, January 16.

Marc Tabor and Andy Shapiro in The Zahsman Murders.

By Sam Hurwitt

I’m not sure why—maybe it was the intriguing flyer art—but somehow I got the idea into my head that Arclight Repertory Theatre’s world premiere The Zahsman Murders was going to be a gritty serial killer thriller. But the play by Berkeley-based playwright and actor Jim Colgan turns out instead to be a rather run-of-the-mill drawing-room murder mystery, only instead of a drawing room it all takes place in one room of a police station in Poughkeepsie, New York, while all the action is going on out in the world somewhere.

A young woman has been murdered in the park, shot in the head, her torso slit open and her reproductive organs removed, and the only witness is a near-catatonic homeless guy with a shaggy Bigfoot beard (Marc Tabor) who keeps muttering something that sounds like “Reno Zahsman.” He’s kept in a small cell in the squad room for the whole play, and the cops call him Popeye because of something else he mumbled that kind of reminded them of a cartoon character.

Whereas your usual police investigation would focus on suspects somewhere out in the world outside the police station itself, this mystery never takes us outside of the squad room. It’s a typical whodunit in the sense that there’s no question that one of the six characters in the play is the killer—and considering that every single character is a police officer, that in itself is a mighty big spoiler. In case you’re tempted to think maybe the killer will turn out to be an offstage character after all, there’s a poll in your program for you to guess which of the characters to win tickets to another show in the season.

For what it’s worth, I guessed right, less because of the facts of the case or the personalities of the characters than because of the tropes of the genre (ignoring the big hints and focusing on the little ones). That said, I didn’t expect the killer to be dressed as a ninja. That was a nice touch.

Fred Sharkey’s simple set is dominated by the cell at stage right, the rest of it depicting a humble detectives’ office with two back-to-back desks, a dry-erase board with case notes and a small corkboard with a city map and wanted poster on it.

The office is overseen by an ineffectual lieutenant, Jerry Deming, whom we mostly know is in charge because he keeps saying so, pouting a bit because no one listens to him. As played by Stuart Hall, Jerry’s a nice guy, but easily befuddled and more concerned with whether everyone knows that he’s dating one of his coworkers than with solving the case. Mark Gelineau makes an amiable sad sack cop as Sergeant Rick Nixon, who makes jokes about his own name as if he hadn’t heard them all a million times before. The two of them seem vaguely troubled by the murder the way they might be if they’d just heard about it in the paper, but they seem to be content to just hold Popeye as their only suspect and hope that more clues fall into their lap. When everyone tells them that he couldn’t possibly be the perp, who was so coolly efficient as to leave no physical evidence at the crime scene, they just seem annoyed that they might have to do something more, and have no idea how to go about it. It might be a pretty good recipe for comedy, but aside from the occasional quip that’s not what this play is. They just sit there spinning their wheels and waiting for something to happen.

Perhaps fortunately, in the sense that it moves things along, soon there’s another murder, and a cop from out of state shows up out of the blue to tell them about a similar string of murders back home.  Also nosing around are Doctor Dianne Fleming (Jenna Gavin), the unflappable police psychologist who regards everything with a vaguely contemptuous, clinical eye, except when she’s cuddling up to Jerry. Lessa Bouchard is more openly hostile as Laura Murphy, a surly, easily annoyed medical examiner who’s offended not just by slurs but even by insensitive shorthand like calling victims “vics.” She also calls her superior officer “dummy” and seems often on the verge of belting everyone around her. Andy Shapiro just smirks and relishes the chaos around him as Billy Tate, a Southern-accented police detective from someplace called Wellsport, CT (unless everyone’s just mispronouncing the actual town of Westport). Like Murphy, it’s not clear why he enjoys being a jerk so much until the very end, when all is revealed at length.

Although the characters are more types than distinct personalities, the actors make them generally pleasant to be around, except when they’re going out of their way not to be. The performers do have a tendency to rush their lines, however, leading to some mushmouth moments. Jenny Hollingsworth’s staging is a bit slow-paced, but most of that’s a problem with the play itself, because we spend all our time where people sit around when they’re not out actually doing something. The impression that they must just not be any good at their jobs is exacerbated by the dialogue, in which people seem to state the obvious a lot and some of them still don’t get it. The intent might be to make sure the audience is up to speed, but the effect is just to make everyone seem awfully thick-headed. The doctors sometimes don’t seem to know much about medicine (“He doesn’t look old enough to be a stroke victim”), and after they receive a letter that consists of nothing but three pages of “ha ha ha ha ha,” someone sagaciously observes, “He’s laughing at us.”

The problem with The Zahsman Murders as a mystery is that there’s not much detecting going on. Bits of information fall into the detectives’ laps as they sit around in the office, and we happen to be there when it happens because, like them, we’re not going anywhere. There’s not much hope that they’ll track the killer down, so all we can do is hope that this cunning, immaculately detailed murderer somehow stumbles into their laps, and indeed that’s pretty much what happens. The victims seem fairly random so there’s not much discussion of motive till the end, when the killer is revealed followed by a long stretch of exposition in the end explaining that person’s whole life story. It’s advertised as “suspenseful, fast-paced and edgy,” but Zahsman is really none of these things. It is, however, a pleasant enough diversion if you have a hankering for an old-fashioned whodunit.

The Zahsman Murders runs through January 29 at WORKS/San Jose Performance Gallery, 451 S. First St., San Jose.

Bonus link: My last Arclight (capsule) review, way back in 2006.

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