by Julie Congress · November 29, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #26: Julie Congress looks at A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder at The Walter Kerr Theatre
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is a lighthearted romp in the style of a turn-of-the-century British comedy of manners. To be candid, I have struggled with the writing of this review. There’s really nothing wrong with A Gentleman’s Guide, but there’s also nothing great about it. It is completely adequate - the performances are good but not comedic star turns. The comedy is cute but not uproariously funny (on the night I attended, the audience hardly laughed audibly, particularly during Act II) and any sense of morality has been cast aside. And while the premise capitalizes on the popularity of Downton Abbey, there is otherwise no apparent timeliness or relevance to this show.
London, 1909. Monty Navarro is young, handsome and…penniless. His mother has just died and the poor lad is distraught. Quite fortunately, as the action begins, he is visited by the matronly Miss Shingle who chirpily informs him that he is, in fact, not only not destitute, but descended from the noble D’Ysquith family – his mother having been disowned for marrying a Castillian – and young Monty is in line to become the next Earl of Highhurst, although eight D’Ysquith family members precede him in the secession. Emboldened by his new-found family name, Monty visits his beloved, the beauty Sibella, only to discover she’s off on a date with a man with money and prospects and a good name. If only Monty were already the Earl of Highhurst, perhaps then he would have a chance! So our charming chap goes about killing off one by one all those D’Ysquithes who stand in his way. But poor dear Monty Navarro, though apparently quite the protégée at killing off distant relatives, has many difficulties in love – Sibella becomes engaged (though they continue to illicitly carry on) while Monty also falls for his cousin Phoebe D’Ysquith. The entire plot consists within the framing device of Monty writing in his diary from prison, so we know that something must go wrong, but for the most part everything lightly romps along in his plan, with Monty’s major problem being having too many love interests.
Clearly, there is a lot of potential fun to be had in this comedy of manners. However, while the bones are there, there’s very little meat put on to the characters or plot. Most significantly, there’s no real resistance provided against Monty. He has minimal-to-no qualms with all of the murdering he’s up to, it’s not particularly difficult or elaborate to execute the murders (they typically last the length of a song), there’s no one after him, and the ladies in his life want him to0 much to let anything get in the way of being with him.
Yet for comedy to work (and all theatre, really, and society!) there has to be an investment and a commitment, and the lack of obstacles in A Gentleman’s Guide prohibit us from ever investing in the characters and story in any meaningful way. Though it’s a light comedy, there must still be stakes for the characters - this is a comedic necessity. We always know that Lucy desperately cares about and wants to be in Ricky’s act and will do anything to sneak into it. But if she didn’t appear to really care that much and didn’t have to work very hard to make it happen and if Ricky never really tried to stop her, well, then the vast majority of the humor would be gone. These are the rules of any cartoon (think Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote) - characters have to work harder in a comedy because the situations and stakes are so utterly ridiculous. Because, as A Gentleman’s Guide, exhibits, if the characters/actors don’t find some way, within the heightened rules of their world, to truly care, then, honestly, we as an audience will not either and will just chuckle lightly now-and-again from the house, removed from the action and uninvested.
Bryce Pinkham is energetic and handsome as Monty. Jefferson Mays, portraying all of the soon-to-be-dead D’Ysquithes, is clearly having fun donning so many hats (and wigs and coats and, yes, in one instance, a dress) and takes clear linguistic pleasure playing with the stiff upper class British accent. But while his performance is quite the aerobic feat, he lacks comedic star quality and we are always aware of how hard he is working. Lauren Worsham brings surprising and much-welcome nuance and groundedness in her portrayal of Phoebe while Lisa O’Hare sufficiently realizes the beautiful but self-interested Sibella.
The book (by Robert L. Freedman and based on a novel by Roy Horniman) provides us with caricatures rather than characters. The lyrics, by Freeman and music writer Steven Lutvak, are occasionally clever, but overall rarely achieve the witticism of the Gilbert and Sullivan style it’s written in. Lutvak’s music is lively and accessible, but the songs sound very similar and are, for the most part, interchangeable. Darko Tresnjak’s direction is quick-paced and has a number of cute sight gags (including a dancing suit of armor).
Yet it’s difficult to tell what the message of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder is. Life is terminated with the utmost of ease (and a cardinal rule, in my mind, is broken when the mistress of one of the D’Ysquithes, an innocent bystander, is also terminated in a skating “accident”) and the biggest laughs of the evening derive from jokes about veiled homosexuality (in the rather catchy song “Better with a Man”) and generalizations about different races (Africans, Egyptians, etc.). It’s clear that the creative team is poking fun at the dated views of people from the early 20th century, but it is difficult to find a positive or constructive theme in the show. Don’t get me wrong, the show is quaint and fun; but for $147 a ticket, one would hope for something that can transcend to a greater level of humor, humanity and artistry.