There are soreheads among us who claim to dislike musicals as a dramatic form because they lack verisimilitude. Orchestral music doesn't well up and people don't break into song at the drop of a hat in real life the way they do in musicals, these dry, mostly Norwegian nitpickers complain.
But surely this misses the point. In real life, people don't declaim in blank verse either, as they do in Shakespeare, or coruscate wittily as they do in Wilde, or pause to hear a chorus' take on their personal lives as they do in Greek drama.
We accept all these things as stage conventions not because they are consistent with reality, but because they are consistent with themselves. They possess an inner consistency of reality that allows us to suspend our disbelief. As long as a dramatic or a fictional world adheres to its own laws convincingly (see The Lord of the Rings for a prime example), most people are willing to roll with it.
Circle Theatre's Better Half Dead is only half convincing, however. The dialogue and acting are generally strong enough to keep disbelief at bay, but the plot drags you reluctantly back to incredulity.
This is one of those cat-and-mouse, who's-going-to-eat-whose-lunch thrillers, like "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap," or like the old "Spy-vs-Spy" cartoon in Mad magazine. It concerns people too cunning for their own good who try to snare their nemeses in elaborate traps that depend on the particular frailties of the person being set up for their effectiveness.
This whack at the genre was penned by Joan Torres, a writer with some rather disparate credits. Torres wrote both the psychobabble best seller, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and the script for the universally esteemed horror classic Blacula (recycled into a musical by Rudy Eastman at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre, a stone's throw from the Circle). Better Half Dead is something of a family affair as Torres' brother, Andrew Harris, former chair of theater departments at SMU, TCU, and Columbia University, acts as director and co-producer, along with Ann L. Rhodes.
The plot spins around Rena (Suzy Blaylock), a bitchy social climber who is tired of her noodle-spined husband Dermot (Rand Tallman), a poor little rich boy who's milked daddy's bank account like a teat his whole life. Rena wants to go back to hubby number one, testosterone-oozing Stanley (T.A. Taylor), a hard-living abstract painter. The three of them hash out their conflicts at Dermot's Long Island beachfront digs. Dermot confronts Rena, a gun goes off (at the right moment, fortunately for the prop man), Rena lies dead, and Dermot stands bemused. Stanley sees this as an ideal opportunity for blackmail, and the double-dealing and back-stabbing commence.
Broadway set designer William Eckhard has provided the actors with a detailed and nuanced stage to machinate in. The bleached wood, the odd ship's helm or duck decoy knickknack, and the Cutty Sark on the bar all express a striving for the easy elegance of the rich that Dermot and Rena have so far been unable to attain.
The players also are in pretty good form. Blaylock gets the most scenery to chew as the Gorgonesque Rena, which she does with relish. However, it's easier to play waspish than weak, so Tallman actually has the more difficult role. He makes the most of it; as Dermot, a man "trapped in a trust fund malaise," he's about as gutless as a freshly cleaned halibut. T.A. Taylor has to be brutish and "elemental" as Stanley, which he is with the help of a closely cropped head and two days' growth of a sandpapery beard.
The MVP part in the play, however, belongs to Gail Cronauer as Jodi, Rena's put-upon sister. A New Age space case, Jodi is into aromatherapy and every other self-help gimmick, and no doubt devours books like Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. A lifetime patsy to her sister, Jodi has the hots for Dermot (weak men exert a certain fascination on some women--just ask my wife). Effectively played by Cronauer, you could tolerate Jodi for about six minutes on the outside, given the help of a strong brandy and soda. It's no surprise she's one of life's fall girls, and it's also no surprise that tables turn by the end of the play.
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In fact, the lack of surprise is one of the main problems with the play. Better Half Dead maintains its inner consistency of reality when it trades in wisecracks about class or the art world (e.g., "I never said I hated money--just the people who have it"). There's also a mean pleasure to be gotten from Rena's catty comments, such as her bitter lament about being so far from the glitterati that "I may as well be living in Waco, Texas." These lines, after all, were penned by the same woman who wrote the brilliant repartee in Blacula, and it shows in flashes here. The promised plot twists, however, shouldn't startle anyone. They're as predictable as the Rangers' annual fall fold, despite elaborate methods taken to conceal them. It also takes a lot of gall for a playwright to expect audiences in 1995 to put up with a psychiatrist from Vienna, such as the one introduced in the last part of the second act.
The play really goes amiss, though, when it breaks the rules of its own game. You may recall how in the Brian DePalma thriller Dressed to Kill, Michael Caine was running around in drag slicing up people with a razor blade. DePalma cheated the audience in that film when he showed glimpses of the killer that clearly were not Caine, in drag or otherwise. These glimpses led you to believe that the killer was either a woman or a slightly built man, not the protocorpulent Caine. When Caine proved to be the killer after all, it was a ripoff that still sticks in my craw 10 years later. The same sort of thing goes on in Better Half Dead when the conniving characters practice their various deceptions even when their intended victims are out of sight and earshot. That leaves a false scent for the audience that's not entirely fair, and undermines the inner consistency of the piece.
As a result, you leave Better Half Dead feeling entertained, but also slightly resentful.
Better Half Dead plays through September 16 at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. (817) 877-3040.