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Theatre in Review: Catch the Butcher (Cherry Lane Theatre Studio)

Lauren Luna Vélez, Jonathan Walker. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Ever wonder what serial killers are like at home? Here comes Catch the Butcher to tell you all about domestic life with a husband who has dispatched nearly a dozen women in his lead-lined, soundproofed basement. Give playwright Adam Seidel credit: This is one plot we haven't seen before. Oddly, however, the evil depicted herein isn't banal -- just very, very stereotypical. Even in the world of mass murderers and their victims, it would seem, men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

This preposterous entertainment begins with Bill, aka "the butcher of Harbor Park," kidnapping yet another victim. Oddly, Nancy, the lady in question, is rather blasé about being chloroformed and carried off, even when she wakes up in a basement where a strange man is unpacking all sorts of grim-looking instruments. "You know the old saying: 'You never know when you'll need a rusty handsaw'," Bill says, cheerily displaying the tools of his trade. It looks like Nancy is about to be reduced to a series of body parts, but she betrays not the slightest hint of terror; instead, she opts to makes casual conversation.

First, Nancy tells Bill that she "needs to use the powder room," a request that is roundly rebuffed. Moving on, she tries such icebreakers as "Did you and your mother have a good relationship?" (In my view, never the right opening with a serial killer; look under "Bates, Norman.") She gets positively flirty, noting that he is the first person to tell her that she is beautiful. She is also inordinately fond of the poems he leaves on the bodies of each of his victims. Even a painful jab in the leg doesn't cool her off. Finally, so irritated is Bill that he proposes to free her, just to get her out of his hair. Even this plan is a nonstarter, however. Nancy's response: "What if I told you being tied up in your basement was the most exhilarating experience I've ever had?"

Before long, Nancy and Bill are lovebirds, carrying on like Ward and June Cleaver in his suburban home. He comes home from work to find her, dressed up, ready with a vodka martini and dinner on the table. ("We're showing everybody that we can take something negative and turn it into something positive," Nancy coos.) But, even in this strange paradise, there's trouble brewing. For one thing, Bill won't reveal the name of the hospital where he works as a doctor. For another, he won't let Nancy speak to anyone else, nor will he give her money to buy food or clothing. Soon Nancy is channeling her inner Betty Friedan, lamenting the monotony of the housewife's lot -- especially when one is a prisoner in one's own home. When the next door neighbor drops by with a bundt cake, Nancy breaks the rules and invites her in, setting up a dinner party that can only lead to disaster.

Not to be flip about such grisly matters, but, by the halfway point I found myself wistful that Bill hadn't chopped Nancy up into little bits when he had the chance, thus sparing us a plot that has no point of contact with any form of lived reality and dialogue that would be redlined out of any episode of Days of Our Lives. It's impossible to tell what Seidel was after -- a straightforward thriller, a black comedy, or some combination thereof. I can personally testify to the total absence of tension on the Cherry Lane Studio stage, and, regarding humor, I will add that, aside from a handful of snickers, the audience at the performance I attended was a silent as the grave.

Jonathan Walker and Lauren Luna Vélez are a solid pair of pros -- amusingly, she has real serial killer cred, having racked up several seasons of the Showtime series Dexter -- but both seem at a total loss as to how to play their characters. Walker's Bill is surely the least menacing murderer ever, even when wielding tools of evisceration. Stuck with a character who makes no sense, Vélez simply says her lines, adopting whatever attitude the words dictate and, seemingly, hoping for the best. Even if she overdoes it, Angelina Fiordellisi is at least modestly amusing as the good old girl next door, who lives to regret Nancy's dinner invitation. It doesn't help that Valentina Fratti's fidgety staging allows the actors to roam freely around the set while dispensing their inane lines.

The interior of Bill's house is supposed to have a vintage look, but, given the absence of any style on stage, I have to assume that Lauren Helpern, the fine set designer, was hampered by a miniscule budget, a lack of time, or both. Brooke M. Cohen's costumes and Graham Kindred's lighting are okay. Quentin Chiappetta's sound design includes his original music, which is often more sinister sounding than anything unfolding on stage.

I won't say that Catch the Butcher has a happy ending, exactly, but I will note that Nancy finally gets what she has wanted all along. It's only too bad she didn't get it 90 minutes earlier. -- David Barbour

(30 September 2015)

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