By Dale King
Incongruity isn’t always a shortcoming. The darkly comedic production No Way to Treat a Lady combines the usually incompatible elements of serial killing and music in a single entity. The adaptation of the book-turned-movie-turned-play now being performed at the Broward Stage Door Theater in Margate is downright entertaining, particularly its finale, which could have been lifted directly from film noir.
The show owes much to its first-rate pedigree. No Way to Treat a Lady is based on the 1964 book by William Goldman, also the author of Marathon Man and The Princess Bride, for which he wrote the screenplays. It became a film in 1968 and morphed into a musical in 1987 at the hands of playwright, composer and lyricist Douglas J. Cohen.
A devilish blend of humor, romance and murder, with just a hint of Oedipal sway, No Way to Treat a Lady succeeds thanks to the four actors who relate the story of Kit Gill (James Hansen), a publicity-crazed Manhattan actor turned serial killer, and Morris Brummel (Dustin Cunningham), the endearing detective who pursues him while at the same time trying to escape the entangling apron strings of his own mother.
There are actually more than four roles in this play. Versatile actress Kimberly Abrams does quintuple duty by portraying Kit’s late mother, Alexandra; Morris’ mom, Flora, and three of the killer’s victims.
The portrayal of Kit Gill is demanding in itself since the character must transform internally and externally. On the outside, Gill uses disguises of benign folks in the community – a tango instructor, a French waiter, female barfly and a priest – so he can make his way into homes and murder women who remind him of his successful, yet relentless mother. Through her portrait that hangs at the top of the stairway, he imagines she berates him from the grave, minimizing him for his lack of theatrical success.
Under the sparse, yet stylish direction of Peter Loewy – back for his second straight show after just completing The Kid from Brooklyn: The Danny Kaye Story — the plot unfolds as a protracted, yet somewhat predictable cat-and-mouse game between the publicity-hungry killer and his pursuer, Brummel. The young police detective who has his own maternal problems soon adds a girlfriend, Sarah Stone (Andrea Arvanigian) to the mix.
“It’s a fun, funny and clever show,” Loewy says. “It has a weirdly likeable homicidal maniac, a loveable if somewhat lost hero and an interesting take on the relationship between sons and their mothers. And the score is pure Broadway musical comedy.”
Actually, the music kind of grows on you. Cohen’s tunes range from tender to lively. The songwriter does an excellent job of bringing several characters together to sing the same lyrics at the same time, but referring to different circumstances. The first tune features Morris, his mom and Kit all singing “I Need a Life,” but all for different reasons.
Things move quickly in this show. Kit kills his first victim after the second song, the appropriately titled “Only a Heartbeat Away.” By the third song, Morris and Sarah are becoming an item, and he celebrates with “So Far, So Good,” also sung by Sarah on another part of the stage.
One prop that’s very important is the newspaper. Kit is enraged that his ghastly crimes are at first written up only in the New York Daily News and not the Times. Eventually, as his crimes get more ghastly – and Brummel’s pursuit heats up – he does make the New York Times. Cohen has all four actors singing the same song, “Front Page News,” to begin Act II, all celebrating the fact that the status of his law-breaking has been upgraded. Brummel, too, revels in his newfound publicity.
This stellar cast is steeped in talent, with voices that ring. Cunningham looks and talks a lot like actor James Gandolfini. His Morris is a combination of stability and uncertainty, where his job is his identity and his home life is a joke.
As Sarah, Arvanigian is, ironically, a New Yorker appearing in a South Florida play set in New York. She has an excellent voice and a variety of gestures and expressions that land her character between vulnerable and confident.
Playing five very different roles is a measure of Abrams’ versatility. She is virtually unrecognizable from cameo to cameo. She brings an especially nasty comic zest to Flora, Morris’ mom.
Hansen treads lightly upon the macabre in his psychotic role of Kit. He could have borrowed from the Norman Bates handbook, but he strikes out on his own, intrigued by his own warped imagination.
No Way to Treat a Lady plays through May 28 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate. Tickets are $38–$42; $16 student tickets are also available. All may be purchased at the box office at 954-344-7765 or online at www.stagedoorfl.org.