A comedic thriller? Stop, you're killing me!
It's easy to understand why someone might want to kill artist Jack Brooks. He's loud, obnoxious and totally self-centered. In short: a baby in a grown man's body.
Tom Nowicki and Chris Clavelli in "The Art of Murder." He refers to himself in the third person. He expects everyone to jump when he bellows — and he does love to bellow.
He's a bully. He cheats on his wife.
He's a poseur.
Like some artists, he believes he's above any moral or social conventions; he can do whatever he wants, simply because he wants to.
"I'm an artist. Never judge me," he likes to say. It's part declaration, part threat.
If the man winds up dead, the police would have an almost endless list of suspects. Because as his art dealer, Vincent, says, "Everyone who's met Jack has thought about killing him!"
But Jack has gotten it into this head that he'd like to kill Vincent. After all, he hasn't had any success in selling Jack's latest, a yellow painting called "Study in Red No. 4." At least, not for the outrageous price Jack expects.
And thus begins "The Art of Murder," Joe DiPietro's thoroughly entertaining play on stage at Florida Repertory Theatre through April 12.
This comedic thriller appears straightforward enough, only to reveal more twists and turns than a roller coaster.
Tom Nowicki, who's also appeared in film and television, makes his Florida Repertory debut with "The Art of Murder." He plays Jack Brooks so well, you hate him.
Kill him? If someone on stage doesn't at least attempt it, I'm sure someone from the audience would be glad to volunteer.
But Annie, his wife (Rachel Burttram), and Vincent (Chris Clavelli) take matters into their own hands, for a variety of reasons. Annie's had enough of Jack's cheating, bullying and posturing. And both realize that death is a great career move. (Artists' work astronomically increases in value when they die, so if Jack dies, it would make both of them obscenely wealthy.)
Ms. Burttram is at the top of her game with this role, which requires an entire array of emotion from fear to anger to glee. At times she seems totally beaten down, other times scarily devious.
"There's a monster inside all of us," her character says at the beginning of the play.
Of course, with a comment like that, it's inevitable people will soon begin to reveal their monstrous side. It's like Chekhov's maxim that if you bring a gun onstage in Act I, someone has to use it by the end of Act III. (And yes, Mr. DiPietro also introduces a gun in this play.)
Mr. Clavelli is marvelous to watch as Vincent, the gay art dealer. Thanks to costume designer Roberta Malcolm, who's done a great job with this show, he's dressed to the T, with trendy glasses and even multi-colored socks that look like Paul Klee knit them. He's not a flashy dresser, but a snappy one.
While there's much humor to be found in the play's events and the characters' reactions, it is Mr. Clavelli's Vincent who continually drops bon mots like Hansel and Gretel dropping breadcrumbs. He's amusingly droll, the Noel Coward of art dealers.
When Jack and Annie are fighting, he dryly comments, "I've forgotten what a fun couple you are."
And about Jack's mixed media piece (paint spilled over various types of shoes), he says, "It looks like the Payless Shoe factory exploded."
Mr. Clavelli has great comic delivery, and watching him and Ms. Burttram work off of each other is very entertaining.
Jessica Leach, a Florida Rep intern, has a small but important role as Kate, the couple's maid. Ms. Leach's accent comes and goes, and unfortunately, she pales, in the company of such strong actors.
The Florida Rep's production is the show's Southeastern United States premiere.
Mr. DiPietro's Edgar Award-winning play is an unusual mixture of comedy and thriller. Some purists might complain that the comedy dilutes the mystery and vice versa, but it works.
Under Robert Cacioppo's excellent direction, this quartet strikes the right balance between making you laugh and keeping you on the edge of your seat. And before the play begins, "Cell Block Tango" from "Chicago" plays, in which a chorus of women sing about how the man they murdered "had it coming" and how he "had only himself to blame."
Mr. Cacioppo, Florida Rep's founding artistic director, keeps the pace moving at a good clip, something that's essential in both comedies and thrillers; the first act moved along so smoothly I was surprised when intermission came.
Kenneth J. Martin's set is spectacular. Instead of a stereotypical Victorian home or a castle, he's given us a multi-level, modern home of rosewood, brushed steel and concrete. The lines are clean, spare and horizontal. It's a smart set, highly realistic.
And the three oversized paintings on the wall — all signed by Jack Brooks — look like the Willem de Kooning's famous gestural paintings of women.
The playwright toys with various mystery conventions and seems to pay homage to movies such as "Les Diaboliques" and "Deathtrap." He also seems to include almost as many instruments of murder as are in the game of "Clue." There's rope, a gun, a knife and a wrench — but no candlestick. But there is an enormous, gray isolation tank, looking eerily — as Vincent points out — like a coffin.
Mr. DiPietro also uses the play as a vehicle for commenting on the craziness of the art world. He sends up everything from the quirks of artists to self-doubt and self-deception to the commercialism of the art world, where gimmick and celebrity trump talent.
So the play is not only about the art of murder, but the murder of art.
It's a strange little changeling child that's partially this and partially that.
"The Art of Murder" keeps you guessing 'til the end. It also keeps you laughing.
What more could you ask from a comedic thriller?
If you go
"The Art of Murder"
The Florida Repertory Theatre,
2267 First St., downtown Fort Myers,
between Hendry and Jackson in the
through April 12
$38, $34, $20
Call 332-4488 or go to www.FloridaRep.org