Magazine article The New Yorker

Stalkers and Talkers; the Theatre

Magazine article The New Yorker

Stalkers and Talkers; the Theatre

Article excerpt

Ever since Homo sapiens put down their clubs and started fighting one another with property, the vocabulary of murder has been inseparable from capitalism's bravado of success. "Making a killing," "killer instinct," "going for the kill," and "getting away with murder" are shibboleths of the psychopathic style that our entrepreneurial culture applauds and rewards. The sweepstakes of American competition spurs some to greatness; it drives others crazy. At least, that is the story to which Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman are sticking in their vaudeville of vindictiveness, "Assassins" (in revival in a Roundabout Theatre Company production at Studio 54, under the elegant direction of Joe Mantello).

In Robert Brill's splendid fairground set, the first thing that comes into view above a steel-pier scaffolding is a neon sign flashing "shoot! win!" Only four of the nine would-be Presidential assassins whom the show throws together actually got their man; the others form a sort of demented gang who just can't shoot straight. Nonetheless, the homicidal itch in all of them was inspired by what Thorstein Veblen called "invidious comparison"--that particularly American brand of envy which agitates citizens to achieve and acquire, and perversely propels the deranged to spoil or to steal the power they conspicuously lack. "If you can't do what you want to," Sondheim's gang sings, "you do the things you can."

"Murder is negative creation," Auden said. For this musical's marginalized souls, taking aim at a President is the magical solution that can impose coherence on a wrecked life. In the first song, the straw-hatted fun-house proprietor (the excellent Marc Kudisch), who hands out guns to the malefactors as he introduces them to us, portrays them all as frustrated American dreamers: "No job? Cupboard bare? / One room, no one there? / Hey, pal, don't despair-- / You wanna shoot a President?" The assassins all have grandiose plans to claim, if not maim, the public imagination. "I have given up my life for one act, you understand," John Wilkes Booth (Michael Cerveris) says to his accomplice. Booth feels betrayed by history and by the violence of the Civil War. Abandoned by destiny, he becomes it; he kills in order to heal. In his apocalyptic act, he controls history, death, even his own immortality. Later, in a debate with Lee Harvey Oswald (Neil Patrick Harris), Booth expounds on the idea of infamy. "They'll hate you with a passion," he says. "Imagine people having passionate feelings about Lee Harvey Oswald." Likewise, Sam Byck (Mario Cantone), who is hellbent on flying a plane into the White House to kill Nixon--and who, incidentally, is dressed as Santa Claus--sees his act as holy and purifying. "You know the world's a vicious, stinking pit of emptiness and pain," he says on a tape that he makes to send to Leonard Bernstein. "I'm gonna change things." (Byck was shot dead before he could accomplish his plan, but not before he'd killed two people.)

In the case of John Hinckley (Alexander Gemignani), who shot Ronald Reagan to win favor with Jodie Foster, history provides better lines than Weidman and Sondheim's caricature. Hinckley understood that prestige is awarded on evidence; he also understood that in the aristocracy of American success there are no strangers. Shooting Reagan made him Foster's equal in celebrity--an equality that, in Hinckley's eyes, could make intimacy possible. Although Weidman has Hinckley referring to the shooting as a "historic act," he misses the more piquant point that for the real Hinckley the assassination was a first step into show business. The shooting, Hinckley told his psychiatrists, was "a movie starring me," with Reagan as co-star and "a cast of doctors, lawyers, and hangers-on."

Only in the cakewalk to the gallows of President Garfield's killer, Charles Guiteau (the compelling Denis O'Hare), does "Assassins" intimate the bright and deadly righteousness of the terrorist's mentality. …

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