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posted: 1/18/2012 6:00 AM

Steel Beam's 'Murderer' not for the squeamish

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  • Norman (Thomas Reed) plots the death of his wife with mistress Millie (Kathryn Meiners) in Steel Beam Theatre's "Murderer."

    Norman (Thomas Reed) plots the death of his wife with mistress Millie (Kathryn Meiners) in Steel Beam Theatre's "Murderer."
    Courtesy of Steel Beam Theatre

By Lisa Friedman Miner

"Murderer" starts with a long first scene that manages to be both surreal and shocking at the very same time.

An artist works at his easel while a woman flips through a magazine. He pours her a drink. Seconds later, she's out cold.

He precedes to strangle her, undress her under a blanket, pluck her teeth out with pliers and then carry her upstairs where the audience watches as he dismembers her corpse in a bathtub.

Wearing boxer shorts and a white apron over his bare chest, the man nonchalantly pads up and down the stairs. He needs a kitchen knife for this task, an electric saw for another. He bags bloody body parts and stuffs them into his fireplace -- breaking only to enjoy a bite of his sandwich or plant a kiss on the decapitated head.

It's all done without dialogue, stretching out a good 15 minutes, maybe longer. And it's made all the more uncomfortable at Steel Beam Theatre, an intimate venue that seems way too cozy to be staging a bloodbath.

Of course, not all is as it seems in "Murderer," written by Anthony Shaffer, the man who penned the more well-known "Sleuth."

Sadly, "Murderer" is no "Sleuth." It does, however, keep you guessing with regard to some truly twisted characters.

The ax-wielding artist is Norman Bartholomew (Thomas Reed), a buffoonish man obsessed with murderers and determined, he says, to commit a crime that will make him "infamous for all time." So he entertains himself by re-enacting famous murders with his mistress Millie (Kathryn Meiners) and plotting to kill his wife Elizabeth (Sherry Winchester Schultz).

His suspicious movements -- reported by a neighbor -- draw the slow-witted Sgt. Stenning (Thom Thomas) to Bartholomew's home in the English countryside. "I like to pay homage to the great murderers of the past," Bartholomew explains when Stenning finds a fake body part. "Are you a nutter?" the cop blurts out, before warning Bartholomew that no good will come of murder games.

When -- and if -- the characters give up the game and embrace the real thing keeps audiences guessing throughout.

That said, "Murderer" remains a bit slow for a thriller, and Stenning's actions ring false throughout.

Still, the cast takes a tough play and makes it work. Reed, in particular, revels in Bartholomew's eccentricities, creating just enough doubt about his actual intent. And as his wife, Schultz provides a strong balance, cutting Bartholomew down with each well-delivered acid-tongued line.

If only the quips had flowed as freely as the blood in the bathtub, "Murderer" might have been a stronger play.

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