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Theater Review: “Little Murders” at American Century Theater

A dark ’60s comedy gets an engaging run in this Arlington production.

Robin Covington as Patsy, Bill Gordon as Reverend Dupas, and James Finley as Alfred in American Century Theater’s Little Murders. Photograph by Dennis Deloria.

There’s something cathartic about seeing a dysfunctional family act out their foibles onstage (versus watching it happen in your parents’ living room). However acrimonius your own clan’s antics may be, they’re unlikely to give much competition to the Newquists, the frustrating, funny, and flawed family at the center of Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders, currently playing at American Century Theater.

In Little Murders, mother, father, and brother are all in a tizzy over the pending arrival of Alfred ( James Finley), daughter Patsy’s ( Robin Covington) new fiancé—whom she’s known for a total of three weeks. It’s clear once the couple arrives for dinner that Patsy was understandably reluctant to introduce her new beau to her embarrassing relatives, even if she fits in just fine with their scarred, strange behavior. It also turns out that Alfred is a bit of a bizarre specimen himself: an atheist and nihilist with an absurd occupation and a propensity for getting beaten up by muggers every time he steps outside. Rather than fight back, Alfred stands there and lets them go at him, humming away in his own world as he gets pummeled.

American Century loves underappreciated flops: Little Murders had a Broadway run that shuttered in a matter of days, but it found a second life off-Broadway and in a 1970s movie adaptation starring Elliott Gould. Though the play debuted in 1967, its awkward and increasingly escalating black humor feels pretty familiar today. Little Murdersexcels in taking traits that feel realistic (a father who doesn’t believe in God but still wants a religious wedding for his daughter) and extending them one step further toward the absurd (said father offering the priest $250 to slip “God” into the ceremony). As the play progresses, the exaggerations stretch more, resulting in a climax that, while rather predictable, is simultaneously funny and disturbingly violent.

Director Ellen Demsey keeps tensions high by creating an uneasy sense of danger throughout—flickering candles and characters’ walks by the window feel much riskier than they would otherwise. Even when played for comic effect (“In my day, we couldn’t afford phones to breathe into,” rants Carol, the father), the parade of harassing phone calls and intruders knocking at the door, not to mention the constant sound of gunshots outside, makes New York City seem like a terrifying place. There’s a satirical feel to Little Murders, but it’s pretty abstract, commenting on a variety of topics—from a hyper-violent society to a woman’s desire to change her husband—without coalescing into one particular thesis.

Craig Miller is endearingly crusty as Carol, perhaps the most realistic of the Newquists, often seething with bottled-up rage while still showing affection for his daughter. The inscrutable Finley gives Alfred a zombie-like, lobotomized quality at first, but eventually lets us see the cracks and vulnerabilities behind Alfred’s detached manner. Bill Gordon gets the most laughs as a hippie priest, Henry Dupas, who impressively tears down the institution of marriage even as he’s performing a wedding ceremony.

The most problematic performance, though, comes from Covington. It’s clear that Patsy, a symbol of strength and optimism in the face of impossible odds, is meant to be the center and heart of Little Murders, even as the play pokes fun at some of her more shallow behavior. But Covington fails to inject the character with the necessary dose of passion and sincerity to inspire the kind of worship she’s supposed to command from those around her.

Little Murders runs through February 11 at Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. Tickets ($27 to $35) are available through American Century Theater’s website.