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The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of Jules Feiffer’s “Little Murders,” which ran from Oct. 17 to Oct. 25 on the Loeb Mainstage, was this year’s Visiting Director’s Project. Under director Shira Milikowsky, the play met the professional standard one has come to expect from the A.R.T.’s mainstage productions.
In an increasingly hostile and dystopian mid-century New York, trouble is brewing in the Newquist household. Strong-willed Patsy (Juliana N. Sass ’17) is bringing home her new boyfriend, Alfred (Matthew J. Bialo ’16), to meet her wildly dysfunctional family. Her mother Marjorie (Mark J. Mauriello ’15) is a shrill-voiced flirt, an aggressive and repressed priestess of the cult of domesticity. Her masculinity-obsessed father Carol (Elizabeth K. Leimkuhler ’15) drinks heavily to cope with his feelings of weakness and inferiority. Her brother Kenny (Samuel B. Clark ’15) is immature, sexually confused, and worst of all, in graduate school. The introduction of Alfred, an avowed nihilist, into the menagerie can only result in chaos, especially when he and Patsy decide to marry. Against this backdrop of increasing family distress, the city falls apart around them as the murder rate spikes and it becomes more and more dangerous to walk the streets unarmed.
The cast delivered universally convincing performances, and to give properly the praises of each actor and actress would take more space than was possible, but three deserved particular attention. David A. Sheynberg ’16, played Reverend Dupas, the hippie minister who ordains the marriage between Alfred and Patsy, had complete control of timing, intonation, and expression; he held the audience in the palm of his hand, evoking laughter almost, it seems, at will. Leimkuhler’s Carol was a subtle portrayal of a very unsubtle character: bombast and insecurity were the most prominent tones, but they were humanized by genuine unhappiness. Mauriello’s Marjorie was flawless—his delivery was exactly as strained as it needs to be, and not a bit more.
Casting a man as Marjorie and a woman as Carol was a clever decision on the part of Milikowsky, contributing to rather than distracting from the action of the play: rather than changing the characters’s genders to match the performers, she changed the performers’s genders so the characters could be more fully themselves. Marjorie was a mannish woman, Carol an effeminate man; there was no way to convey this more naturally than casting the former as a man and the latter as a woman.
The set, designed by Daniel J. Prosky ’16, was beautifully crafted: wood floors and hung wood ceiling panels conveyed the generic middle-class interiors in which the action took place. The clean and almost sterile atmosphere of the set emphasized the repression of the characters and highlighted by contrast their increasingly unhinged behavior. This relative simplicity of appearance also gave special significance to changes in the set: the introduction of a barricade to the back of the stage in the second act was prominent, while it would have been less noticeable and effective in a more crowded design.
The weakest part of “Little Murders” had nothing to do with the particulars of this production: it was the script itself. Full of violence and family-life satire, “Little Murders” may have been before its time when it flopped on Broadway in 1967, and immediately relevant in its 1969 revival, but in 2014, when the mores of the 1950s are already dead and buried, its viciousness felt hollow and was itself almost as antiquated as the reality it portrayed. While this production was nigh flawless, it was impossible to overcome a weakness inherent in the text.
The Loeb Mainstage has been host to many excellent performances through the years, and “Little Murders” deserves to be remembered with the best of them. Seldom does a student production, especially when founded on a potentially garish text, display such polish and thoughtfulness.
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