New Tuners Theatre

at the Theatre Building

“I don’t care what they do,” the Victorian actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell is supposed to have said about homosexuals, “so long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” Trask & Fenn, a gay romantic murder mystery set in Mrs. Campbell’s era, doesn’t frighten the horses–or the audience. And that’s a sign of failure in what is being ballyhooed as a “musical thriller.” Though it boasts some sophisticated semioperatic writing by composer Jan Powell and a collection of solid and in some cases superb performances, this effort from New Tuners Theatre exposes the serious flaw in a drawn-out workshop process that concentrated on refining details while ignoring basic structural problems.

A capsule synopsis of Ken Stone’s script suggests a sort of Sweeney Todd Meets Maurice. Schoolboys Roderick Trask and William Fenn try to pursue their not-so-secret romance after graduation, but when Trask arrives at Fenn’s London mansion for an extended visit, the lads find that what was barely tolerated by adolescents is actively opposed by adults. Faced with his father’s threat to disinherit him–and his lover Fenn’s own guilty ambivalence about his homosexuality–the handsome and manipulative Trask contrives to marry Fenn’s sister, Olivia. But the scheme only brings greater frustration all around. Meanwhile, a series of killings begin–killings attributed to one Jack the Ripper. Fenn suspects Trask.

But what sounds intriguing on paper is massively muddled onstage. Most of the first act passes without a hint of murder or mayhem; the focus is on the young men’s affair and the social pressures against it–ranging from the elder Trask’s overt opprobrium to Olivia’s shocked discovery of her fiance’s true nature (she should stay away from keyholes). Essentially ironic, with effectively subdued suggestions of romance and pathos, this first section works quite well as bittersweet comic opera in the mold of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief and The Medium. Trask’s self-ensnarement, wed to a woman he cannot love and bound to a man who is afraid to love him, is peculiarly funny as well as sad, especially as played by actor Will Chase, whose restrained conviction is completely convincing and whose handsome face subtly expresses the situation’s moral and emotional complexities.

But then Jack the Ripper pops onto the scene, and the whole thing falls apart. If the killer’s presence had been established from the beginning, with scenes of mystery and horror juxtaposed with the love story, there might have seemed some purpose to his sudden appearance; instead it’s merely intrusive. We’re never frightened enough to be receptive to the new material, and we’re never tempted to suspect Trask of being the killer, so Fenn’s misgivings seem ridiculous and churlish–and his delay in acting on them ludicrous. (The key to such successful thrillers as The Lodger and Suspicion is that the audience shares the characters’ doubts.)

Compounding the confused plotting is the work’s fatally unsure tone, which veers from Gilbert and Sullivan whimsy to John Belushi-style “manly men” burlesque to unabashed romanticism before plunging into bleak would-be tragedy.

Which is too bad, because until it gets trapped by its “thriller” conceit Trask & Fenn is an effective study of love and its corruption–not by “decadent” sexual unorthodoxy but by the lies and distortions underlying society’s historical antagonism toward gay people. It’s a timely topic, what with the newly energized assault on homosexuality as a “wrong choice” by right-wing politicians. But then the show gets bogged down in its incoherent attempt at horror, and neither it nor the audience ever gets back on track.

Director Warner Crocker deserves considerable credit for not letting the show disintegrate into a laughable mess. The production is solid and occasionally sprightly, buoyed by the crisp playing of a six-person orchestra under Judy Myers’s direction and featuring a set of handsome costumes by Patricia Hart. (Kurt Sharp’s set design is unfortunately dreary, except for a very funny pseudo-classical tomb.) Chase’s subtle and multi-leveled Trask is ably supported by Christopher Gurr’s stolid Fenn (he carries the role off fairly well, considering he joined the show late in rehearsals–his name in the program is pasted over another actor’s). Kelly Anne Clark impressively manages Olivia’s severe shift from comic foil to tragic heroine; Lisa K. Wyatt is very fine indeed as dithery Aunt Cecilia (a role whose second-act retreat has a lot to do with the show’s second-act defeat); and Fred Goudy is in excellent bass voice as Trask’s pompous papa. Ryan Johnson and Jim Blanchette, as a pair of all-knowing sissies who comment on the action, provide classic caricatures of smarmy, smothered closet queens, a telling contrast to Trask’s out-of-the-closet aspirations before he makes his disastrous compromise with convention. Having failed to guide Trask & Fenn’s authors toward a successful work, New Tuners has at least given them an impressive show.