Jeffrey Hatcher's Murderers consists of three monologues from people who take a perverse pride in their crimes. Each person takes the stage and immediately proclaims, "I am a murderer." But there's nothing in these confessions that will chill the blood of a theatergoer; most people will be too busy laughing to be frightened.
Murderers is a delight - a very funny comedy with some biting satire and terrific storytelling. And the Philadelphia Theatre Company's production, an East Coast premiere, shines thanks to excellent direction by Michael Bush and three superb performers who elevate the material into first-rate entertainment.
Hatcher - whose work was last seen at PTC six years ago in the very different Compleat Female Stage Beauty - sets his tales at the Riddle Key Retirement Community in Florida, which seems to be the perfect place for living out your golden years. Yes, if you want to spend your retirement golfing, going to dances, or just watching the History Channel, Riddle Key is the place for you ... provided you don't get bumped off by one of the staffers. Hatcher has a lot of fun mocking the American Way of Waiting For Death, and his three protagonists (only one of whom is retired) play with the stereotypes of the elderly in unexpected ways. The citizens of Riddle Key may move a little slowly, but they haven't lost a step mentally - and woe to the youngsters who try to pull a fast one on them.
Murderers also plays with the conventions of the mystery genre. The three stories are told directly to the audience by the murderers themselves, so the fun is not in solving the crimes but in seeing how the plots are concocted and how those plots (sometimes) fall apart. It's not unlike seeing some of the best episodes of Columbo - a series that Hatcher wrote for. (Hatcher is also not above stealing from the best; one of the three stories has a final twist right out of the granddaddy of I-did-it thrillers, Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles.)
You couldn't ask for a more perfect cast of killers. Brent Langdon finds the right combination of likeability and smug superiority as Gerald, a younger man who moves to the retirement community to collect on a windfall from a will. Langdon is also a superb mimic, adopting some clever voices to tell his story. Kristine Nielsen is all fluttery exhilaration as a Riddle Key executive who is a little too eager to please - and far too eager to kill. She's also obsessed with a series of mystery novels set on Broadway that have titles like Murder With Carol Channing - one of the many amusing asides that Hatcher peppers his script with.
Best of all is Marylouise Burke, bringing her trademark brand of dotty befuddlement to the role of Lucy Stickler, who moves into action when an old rival for her husband's affections moves to Riddle Key. Shuffling around her bedroom in a pink housecoat (the excellent costumes are by Karen Ann Ledger), she seems like the most pleasant, agreeable grandma ever - but underneath it all, she is determined that no one will ever outsmart her again.
Michael Bush provides tight direction; the stories are told in a way that is consistently engrossing, and each character is lively and loveable despite their murderous eccentricities. And James Noone's ingenious set design - setting three completely different rooms within the same framework - just adds to the enjoyment.
There are a few minor but nagging flaws in the script; as much fun as it is, there are times when Hatcher overreaches to get a laugh. There are a lot of witty remarks here, but all three characters have the same style of wit; there's not enough here to differentiate the three voices. Hatcher has so many good jokes that he sometimes sticks them in his characters' mouths whether they're appropriate or not. (Two of the narrators compare people they meet to James Bond villains; that's a little too convenient and lazy. And Langdon's character has a few clunkers about being mistaken for a hippie that don't fit his dapper, middle-aged persona.)
Still, there's a lot to love about these Murderers, and you'll enjoy spending time with them. Just don't rub them the wrong way.
Murderers runs through Sunday, November 5, 2006 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $33 to $51, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at http://www.phillytheatreco.com/, or by visiting the box office.