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Article posted: 2/8/2013 6:00 AM

Fox Valley Rep does 'Murder' lite


Early on in Fox Valley Repertory's "The Art of Murder," Annie Brooks tells her lout of a husband that there's a "monster" in all of us. That proves quite true in Joe DiPietro's comic mystery, a tale of three monsters, really.

The first, and most obnoxious, is Jack Brooks (Stephen Spencer), a preening, pretentious artist oozing with contempt for everyone around him. He's verbally abusive to his long-suffering wife Annie (Mary Winn Heider) and not above sexually harassing his Irish housekeeper (Bridget Schreiber). But he saves the worst of his wrath for his art dealer, Vincent (Ted Hoerl).

Jack is furious that Vincent has failed to sell his latest work, titled "Study in Red No. 4" -- despite being neither red nor one in a series.

So Jack plots to do away with Vincent just as Annie turns to the art dealer with another idea: They team up and drown Jack in his isolation tank. Then, Annie would be free to pursue her own dreams and they'd both profit financially. After all, as Vincent conveniently points out, a dead Jack is worth twice as much as a live one.

"The Art of Murder" comes from the nothing-is-as-it-seems world of staged mysteries. And that's the problem. From the start, you know there's a twist -- maybe two -- thus stripping the drama of the sense of surprise.

If the play misses out on suspense, it does deliver the laughs. And at a tight 90 minutes, including intermission, "Murder" -- under Jason W. Gerace's direction -- moves at a brisk pace.

Heider deserves much of the credit. She is believable as both Jack's victim and his vanquisher, and equally adept at comedy and drama. Spencer, meanwhile, is perfectly pompous as Jack; a few minutes in, you won't have any trouble appreciating why Annie would want to kill him. Hoerl, on the other hand, plays Vincent as a tad too likable. That makes his willingness to go along with murder -- and his callousness toward his clients, even calling suicide a "terrific career move" -- less convincing than it should be.

At times, "The Art of Murder" muses on the nature of art and celebrity and the drive to turn canvasses into commodities. Mostly, though, it just delights in giving its "monsters" their due.

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