"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.
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"Murderer"★ ★ ½
Location: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles, (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 5
Running time: About two hours 20 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $25, $23 for students and seniors
Parking: Free parking garage
Rating: For mature audiences; strong language and violent content
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.