Theatre Reviews

Wash U's Performing Arts Department has revived Gossip, a 1977 comic spoof by Canada's prolific George F. Walker. And I'm not exactly sure why. 

Gossip deals with the murder of Jane "The Bitch" Nelson -- a particularly obnoxious celebrity. She is poisoned at a very tony art exhibition and falls dead into a tire swing -- one of the objets d'art on display. (In some productions her body remains there throughout the play.) 

Well, who dunnit?

T.M. Power is a serious, hard-hitting political reporter and when his boss, Baxter, assigns him to investigate the case he at first refuses; this assignment into the world of scandal and gossip is beneath him. But Baxter insists and Power begins his investigation. In a dozen or more brief scenes in six different locations, Power meets the following bizarre members of the glitterati and their hangers-on:

  • Peter Bellum, a self-inflated acting coach, played by Daniel Washelesky
  • Anna, a young and sexy aspiring actress who will do quite anything for a buck, played by Nina Punyamurthy.
  • Brigot Nelson, an avant-garde poet (and sister to the dead Jane), played by Jacque Randolph.
  • Allan, Brigot's abjectly obedient servant, played by Dwayne McCowan. He is eager to obey every time she cries "Kill him!" (in the tone of the Red Queen crying "Off with his head!") 
  • Margaret, Power's deranged ex-sweet-heart, played by Carly Rosenbaum. She is madly in love with her own brother (a powerful and corrupt senator), but needs for Power to be in love with her.
  • Norman and Sam Lewis, lawyer brothers (twins?) who seem to do everything in synch, even smoking and sex. They're played by Jake Wallack and Brandon Krisko.
  • Susan Long, a very high-class hooker, played by Marley Rosetree.

All of these folks are sheer cartoons, and the plot is simply beyond comprehension. But that's not important, because we're not intended to comprehend. This is not a mystery, it's a spoof of all those noire murder mysteries. As with the enormously popular TV series Poirot and Midsomer Murders, the play ends with all the suspects gathered in the drawing room (or wherever) as the detective gives an expository monologue detailing the motives and actions and, finally, identifying the killer. The detective somehow magically knows all this. (Those "little gray cells" must be amazingly powerful.)

In Gossip, as T.M. Power delivers this final monologue, it is simply impossible to follow the Byzantine convolutions of murders, disguises, non-existent characters, mysterious things that may or may not have happened in Argentina, the discovery of a mystical tribe of tiny people, dreams of Utopia, hidden motives, and people who are not dead after all. And, actually, Power really never has found the killer of Jane "The Bitch".

Goofy? Well, yes! 

But why revive this play? Now, I believe that America's worship of celebrity -- our obsession with the manufacture, merchandizing and monetizing of celebrity -- is one of our greatest problems. But this play is not a satire on celebrity-worship. No, it is merely a spoof of that noire mystery genre with all its prickly hard-boiled dialogue and its Hollywood character types. As a spoof it could have been quite funny. (There were frequent laughs but there should have been many more.) To be a spoof it requires a far brisker pace. It requires a vaudeville pace. That final monologue should be just as presto as a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. To hell with making each word understood; we should be swept away in the vast silliness of it all. In this production the pace is too often leisurely, the acting too naturalistic. The show should have been maybe twenty minutes shorter. As it is I'm afraid I must say that it often sags into tedium. 

It's not just the acting that slowed things down. The set, by Lindsay Eisold, is very, very beautiful: simple, spare, elegant, all golds and tans with a sort of monochrome-Mondrian pattern on the floor. The minimalist art exhibition in the first scene is stunning: clean, bright, clear. Wonderful work. There's not a lot of furniture -- some benches, a desk or two, a table, a bed -- but for this play to work as a fast-paced spoof there's just too much. Scene changes are swift, but still the time needed for the shifting of even those few pieces of furniture slows things down. The cinematic style -- many short scenes -- is better served with perhaps just pools of light.

Director William Whitaker wisely chose to do the play in three-quarter round, with the audience on the stage. This intimacy is really helpful if the audience is to follow really fast-paced dialogue. But, alas, there was very little fast-paced dialogue.

So, despite yeoman's work by the entire cast, a failure in pace and acting style scuttles this revival of Gossip. It played at Wash U's Edison Theatre April 20 through 23.

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