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Assassins

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 13, 2017


Victoria Clark, John Ellison Conlee, Shuler Hensley,
and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Joan Marcus

History, as it is unfolding disturbingly before our eyes these days, has changed the way we view the 1990 John Weidman/Stephen Sondheim collaboration,Assassins, so that members of the audience are likely to respond emphatically as they make connections between the show and today's headlines. Certainly, this was the case at last night's opening of the mostly thrilling, occasionally misfired Encores! Off-Center production at City Center, where laughter and applause stopped the performance about fifteen minutes in.

That moment occurred when the Balladeer (Clifton Duncan) started singing "The Ballad of Booth," which, of course, recounts the story of John Wilkes Booth but took on a different meaning for many when he came to the lines: "Every now and then, the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then, a madman's bound to come along." Not hard to guess the shift in the audience's interpretation of these words, or why their loud and lengthy reaction held things up for a couple of minutes.

Assassins itself is not an overtly political show, however. Rather, it focuses on trying to get inside the minds of those who have killed or attempted to kill U. S. presidents. The scariest thing about all of this is not the deeds themselves, but the ordinariness of those unhinged enough to make their way into the history books via this exclusive club. Of the nine killers or would-be killers depicted, only Booth, Lincoln's assassin (exceptionally well played by Steven Pasquale), is seen as having a politically self-justified motive. All of the others come off as disturbed lost souls who long for some significance to their lives or who are seeking someone to shoulder the blame for their generalized grievances. They are, in fact, the sort of people we read or hear about all too often, relatively invisible until they carry out random acts of violence.

The production opens with the orchestra, seated above and behind the main playing area, performing a carnival-like version of "Hail to the Chief." There are nine stand mikes spread across the stage, with targets hanging behind them. Eight of the targets hold one each of different types of handguns, while the ninth holds the rifle that will be used by Lee Harvey Oswald (Cory Michael Smith) to shoot President Kennedy. The characters enter, and each is sold one of the weapons by the proprietor of the Carnival's shooting gallery (Ethan Lipton) before joining the opening number ("Everybody's Got the Right") and then going off to get ready to use them.

The show mostly avoids the "talking heads" version of the narrative, in which each of the characters would take turns telling his or her story or doing solo performances of one of the songs from Sondheim's eclectic score, drawing inspiration from the various musical styles of the times being depicted. Instead, they cross the borders of time and place that would normally keep them apart, and frequently interact with each other. They meet up in groups or in pairs in a luncheonette setting, where they hang out in the booths, vent their anger, or just chit-chit.

That sort of idle conversation is how two of the characters, "Squeaky" Fromme (Erin Markey) and Sara Jane Moore (Victoria Clark), bond. While both actresses do a very good job (I especially liked Ms. Markey's spacy, hippy-dippy portrayal), their interactions and their respective failed attempts at killing President Ford are played more for comic relief than anything else. The poor shooting skills of Ms. Clark's character are milked for laughs a bit too much ("I couldn't hit William Howard Taft if he were sitting in my lap"), so that the overall effect of this pair is out of balance with the sardonic tone of most of the rest of the production.

More in keeping with the overall disconcerting mood of the piece, Danny Wolohan, dressed in a Santa suit and raging into a tape recorder, sinks his teeth into the role of the seemingly schizophrenic Samuel Byck, who speaks of his plans to "incinerate Dick Nixon" by flying a plane into the White House, another troubling image that has taken on new layers of meaning since the show's original outing. Steven Boyer as John Hinckley, Alex Brightman as Giuseppe Zangara, John Ellison Conlee as Charles Guiteau, Shuler Hensley as Leon Czolgosz, and Cory Michael Smith as Lee Harvey Oswald all excel in their roles by showing us the separate and distinct personalities for these killers.

But if Assassins can be said to "belong" to any single character, that would be John Wilkes Booth. As the man who killed Lincoln, Steven Pasquale is a marvel. Booth serves as the driving force, the instigator and encourager of all who follow in his footsteps, and Pasquale occupies the role so completely and with such charisma, that he is the single best reason for seeing this semi-staged, under-rehearsed (an unavoidable hallmark of the quickly-put-together Encores! productions) rendition. Pasquale hits the bullseye time and again in both speech and song, and his final scene with Cory Michael Smith as the depressed and angry Lee Harvey Oswald is outstanding.

This is a long scene in which Sondheim concedes pride-of-place to book writer John Weidman. Here is where Booth's skill as the one-time renowned actor comes fully into play as he charms, cajoles, and coerces Oswald into taking hold of that rifle and doing what he must do by killing President Kennedy. Even now, more than 50 years after the fact, Kennedy's assassination remains fixed in the minds and memories of many in the audience, and the song that follows ("I remember where I was, just exactly where I was") resonates forcibly with those of us who were around at that time. Also drawing an audible audience response are Booth's references to the assassination of Julius Caesar, which brings to mind the protests around the recent production of Shakespeare's play, in which Caesar was portrayed as a stand-in for the current occupant of the White House.

The production itself, which is being directed by Anne Kauffman, whose résumé includes the tepid Marvin's Room at the American Airlines Theatre, is not without its flaws. There is the occasionally awkward shift in tone, a surprising lack of coordination between the offstage sound of gunfire and the onstage actions, an uninspired set design, and some glitches with the audio system. But for a myriad of reasons, none of which its creators could have anticipated, Assassins has become a show for our time. This is why, along with a number of very strong performances, especially that of Steven Pasquale, this Encores! Off-Center production ought to be a very hot ticket.


Assassins
Through July 15
New York City Center's Mainstage, 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: nycitycenter.org


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