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Murder Ballad

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Ellison Conlee, Karen Olivo, Will Swenson, and Rebecca Naomi Jones.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Whatever else there is to say about Murder Ballad, at least it lives up to its title. This new musical by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, which Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting in its Stage II space at City Center, does indeed contain both a murder and singing. A whole lot of the latter, in fact. And despite the titular killing, which is performed (spoilers!) with a baseball bat, and all that vocalizing being backed by rolling waves of throbbing rock and pop, this show somehow fails to be tense, suspenseful, or even engaging beyond its prevailing question of, "When is someone gonna die?"

The answer to that will not be revealed here. Nor, for that matter, will the identity of either the perpetrator or the victim. This is not, however, for fear of ruining the surprise—that would imply that something, or anything, unexpected occurs during this 85-minute tribute to tedium that is conspicuously missing a plot, creative characters, and a score that contributes to the fabric of the evening. What it has instead are a fine director in Trip Cullman and a superb cast in John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Karen Olivo, and Will Swenson, who work harder to convince you that this is a story worth telling than any actors should have to.

That story, such as it is, considers couple Tom (Swenson) and Sara (Olivo), who are a hot-and-heavy item before mutually agreeing to go their separate ways. Why, you may ask? The closest thing to an explanation is this lyric: "After three years / It became clear / With close inspection / No one's perfection." After the two split, Sara meets Michael (Conlee), a doctoral student in poetry at NYU. They end up in bed together, spurred on by Sara's moving demand, "Don't make me a promise / People take those away. / Don't want anyone to love me / But I do want you to stay." Floored by this passionate embrace of language, he does, they marry, have a child, and live happily together until, several years later, Sara and Tom meet again.

You can imagine what comes next—and that's exactly what transpires. Jordan, who's credited with the concept, book, and lyrics, is an accomplished playwright and librettist (Boy, Sarah, Plain and Tall) who's demonstrated her ability to craft emotional nuances from unassuming pieces. But the lack of defining characteristics of any of the trio prevents them, and thus their troubles, from becoming real. Raw erotic attraction is the only detail here, and even that is not persuasively enough rendered to be a believable foundation for the non-action depicted.

Nash says in the first line of her Playbill bio that she's "new to the theatre," and it shows. Her music, orchestrated by Justin Levine for keyboard, bass, drums, guitars, and mandolins, lopes and meanders with a pulsating backbeat, relying heavy on sound designer Leon Rothenberg's volume knob to provide the theatrical excitement the notes and words cannot. Murder Ballad is mostly sung, but because the songs say nothing (a climactic lyric runs, "Always been in love with you / Do anything that you asked of me / Know I'd do anything / Please, don't leave me"), they're incapable of conveying drama.

That's the exclusive job of the performers, and they're all thankfully up to the task. Swenson and Olivo are a sweaty, magnetic pair who are both recognizably hurt and hungry, and make Tom and Sara seem like the kind of people who could have sex whenever they wanted, with whomever they choose, but will only ever be satisfied with each other. Conlee finds no shortage of juice in the super-square Michael, and communicates with an awkward charm the crucial but uneasy role he fills and frequently chafes against. The scenes that feature all three are awash in real sparks, something all your senses insist the writing should not allow.

Cullman deserves legitimate praise for bringing that out of them and for guiding things along a frictionless path from start to finish, though his staging concept is an eye-rolling one. He's set the show in the seedy bar Tom tends, for no discernible reason other than to give the performers an excuse to brood by, battle near, and writhe upon set pieces like a pool table and the cocktail tables at which the audience members are seated throughout the auditorium. (The scenic design is by Mark Wendland.) Nothing about it screams either New York or drunken romance, so it's rather less than effective. But, in case you were wondering: Yes, the bar is open before the show.

It's in the depths of it, however, that you'll be most craving the drink. As Olivo, Swenson, and Conlee pad through the paces of their characters' predictable triangle, and Jones, playing the at-first-mysterious Narrator (with an alluring undercurrent of genuine menace), rises in prominence for spurious reasons, being insulated against the encroaching obvious starts looking better and better. Alas, things end more or less as they begin: with energetic nonsense. "It's only a tale," the actors sing in the finale. "Rhythm, words, melody. / That's entertainment! / Until it happens to you." The lyric is supposed to be ironically chilling, but it's hard to take its advice seriously given that, by that point, Murder Ballad has spent nearly an hour and a half barely happening at all.

Murder Ballad
Through December 2
New York City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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