Cherry Street Theatre Company

at the Famous Door

It definitely goes against the grain to ask actors to turn themselves into cartoon characters, but that’s the only way to make Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders believable. The sort of play with no motivation more complicated than getting to the next panel, Feiffer’s black 1968 comedy teems with caricatures of gratuitous violence, village fascism, liberal timidity, homophobia, misogyny, and mindless machismo — more satirical targets than any play should have to handle. Play it realistically and it becomes more than an audience can handle either.

The Newquist family after all is the distilled essence of the American Nightmare. Father Newquist (he hates being called by his first name, “Carol”) would make Archie Bunker look restrained; screaming “I want my freedom!” he’s all in favor of putting electric fences around entire undesirable neighborhoods (he can also spot a limp wrist at 50 paces). Wife Marjorie, a brittle nag, long ago sublimated sex in God but badgering her family gives her yet another reason to persist. Their closet-case son Kenny, a whining, nerdy graduate student who has a killer instinct to kick folks when they’re down, plays bratty kid brother to his testosterone-tough sister Patsy, 27, a business whiz and virtual one-woman castration complex. Too strong for her own good, ball-busting Patsy finds herself drawn to men she can mold into a manhood not unlike her own. Alfred Chamberlain, the one she marries, is true to type: a self-proclaimed “apathist,” he’s a big guy who lets little muggers beat him up (sometimes for hours). A professional photographer, Alfred has literally lost his focus — on people that is; he’s great with objects (his latest series is devoted entirely to city shit). On top of all this, the weak son and weak mother and strong father and strong daughter have feelings for each other better left as subtexts. All these family affairs constitute the “little murders” that make the big ones possible.

Just as eccentric but much more sinister than Kaufman and Hart’s Sycamore clan, the Newquists find themselves besieged by power failures, obscene phone calls, and friendly neighborhood snipers — it’s a far darker tone than Feiffer takes in his comic strip. Mean moments abound, like Patsy and Alfred’s wedding, in which Carol, wanting to defy the couple by getting God mentioned in the service, tries to bribe the officiating Mahasattvaa Swami Devageet; the guru takes his check, then dourly turns the ceremony into a pep talk for what he sees as an inevitable divorce.

The only matter at stake in Little Murders is what will make Alfred fight back — and prove himself as bigoted, violent and all-American as the rest of the Newquists. Naturally his incentive is an act of violence — against the one person who most wanted Alfred to live up to his height. By play’s end Alfred too is, alas, a full-fledged Newquist, merrily helping the family to load their mail-order rifle and firing at anyone in his sights. Togetherness means never running out of ammo.

Obviously Little Murders is no tissue of subtleties and nuance. Speaking basic graffiti, the characters remain only as deep as their next wisecrack. Play this slow or seriously and you lose as much focus as Alfred’s camera. Updating the action to 1987 and moving the locale from New York City to Chicago’s Uptown, this Cherry Street Theatre revival totters perilously on the edge of sincerity. It’s wonderful in its details (Eric Karten and Marc Grapey’s sound design is everything the script suggests), but there’s an earnestness and programmed anarchy here that cries out to be jazzed and speeded up.

Occasionally Dan Rivkin’s staging erupts with spurts of energy that reanimate the caricatures and let loose some sidesplitting sight gag — like when Grapey as Lt. Practice, a flustered Kojak, puts his head through a wall. Grapey’s Practice is right on its two-dimensional target, as is John Allen’s whimpering, twerpy Kenny.

Like several here, Tom Morris as the fascist father and Carol Hemminger as his self-effacing spouse are critically off in their comic timing, but at least they can contort their pusses as if they’d just escaped from Feiffer’s drawing board. They don’t comment on their absurdities; they just play their Newquists from the outside in.

But too often the Cherry Street actors fatally try to play the moment instead of the panel. That’s a treacherous temptation with the comparatively developed Patsy, particularly in her long (and dull) second-act courtship scene. Maureen Mueller plays the mothering daughter with a Method-rich radiance and ladylike decorousness that most of Patsy’s lines thoroughly reject. Likewise, Jim Donovan gets terribly introspective in Alfred’s monologue (where he lengthily describes his clandestine correspondence with the man who censored his letters from Vietnam). Perversely, Alfred is so withdrawn we cease to care if he ever snaps out of it; if Donovan suggested Alfred’s extremes there might be some edge to the performance. Glendon Gabbard has a cameo as the Jewish judge who tries to hector the lovers into putting God in their wedding — after all, says the judge, God is the only excuse we have for all the hell we put up with on earth. Gabbard’s erratic pacing doesn’t allow this diatribe to build into anything more than a foggy snit. Finally, there are eight other Cherry Street actors, including the director, who are dedicated and patient enough to wait around to play walk-on roles during the wedding scene. Nobody here is in this for the money.

With its cleverly cloned All in the Family living room by Rivkin and Grapey and Thom Miller’s lighting (which flickers as the nearby el trains rumble by), Little Murders is technically much improved over Black and Blue, Cherry Street’s last show. But unlike that rollicking tribute to Joe Orton, this careful farce won’t risk the manic energy it takes to make sense of Feiffer’s anger. At the end of Little Murders we shouldn’t have to wonder what all the fuss was about.