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Catch the Butcher

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lauren Luna Vélez and Jonathan Walker
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Tales about serial killers typically revel in the harrowing. The monster's methodical torture of his victims. A terrified prisoner struggling to escape his bloody clutches. Desperate police officers and lab workers hunched over evidence, trying to determine the perpetrator's identity in a pulse-pounding race against time. Whether with the Oscar-winning movie The Silence of the Lambs, the chilling TV series Dexter, or any of a thousand other examples, the formula is essentially always the same—in no small part because it essentially always works.

Adam Seidel proves with his new play at the Cherry Lane Studio Theatre, Catch the Butcher, that he knows the genre backward and forward—because how else could he skewer it so perfectly and, most of the time, so delightfully? He plays on our expectations right from the outset, too, showing us a beautiful young woman (Lauren Luna Vélez) sitting in a park, flirting with a handsome middle-aged man (Jonathan Walker) she meets, only to be drugged by him and carried away to his basement dungeon, where she's strapped to a chair and force to watch as he dons the clothing designed to shield him from the blood he's about to spill.

Mere moments later, however, things take on a different spin. It turns out she's not afraid of this man she's correctly identified as the Butcher of Harbour Park, who's made headlines in recent months for chopping up women and dumping them in a river with an original commemorative poem attached to their bodies. In fact, she appears to actually be enjoying playing her role, psychoanalyzing him, critiquing his verse, and even (can it be true?) looking forward to being another link in his chain.

This has a strange side-effect: When she doesn't give her captor the fear he craves, he starts changing, too: dressing a wound he created on her leg by jamming in a scalpel, feeding her homemade French toast, that sort of thing. Pretty soon, they're on a first-name basis: She's Nancy, he's William—or, as she insists on calling him, Bill. When, after seemingly a few days of this, he decides to let her go, she refuses to leave, preferring instead to stay with him and... Wait, what the heck's going on here?

What indeed! If I seem to be unspooling plot point after vital plot point, rest assured I'm not. This is all only the stage-setting appetizer for the real hijinks that ensue when Bill and Nancy to pursue normalcy in the real world above the ground. With cackling wryness and, against the odds, a hefty infusion of warmth, Seidel constructs and dismantles our preconceptions of not just these types of people (it doesn't take long to learn that Nancy is less innocent than she first appears) but also what passes for the civil society in which they're able to not only exist, but even blend in.

Seidel is able to maintain the craziness for a long time, too, as he finds ever-new methods of investigating what happens when loners connect and to "reform." There's no shortage of darkness, even when it seems Nancy and Bill's troubles are furthest behind them, but the comedy has a way of blazing through and yanking you back into their demented not-quite-reality. Director Valentina Fratti is right in step with Seidel's sensibilities, and has implemented a lean staging with the proper number of surges and pull-backs of her theatrical camera lens to keep you addicted to the action. (The only misstep: Lauren Helpern's set, although a witty and minimalistically attractive manifestation of William's sense of style, demands a few too-long scene changes that interrupt the otherwise sprightly flow.)

Vélez and Walker are a potent pairing, who approach their equally demented characters in divergent but compelling ways: Nancy is quiet, subversive, and even reluctant to reveal her deepest emotional secrets; Bill wears his like a badge of honor. And the duo's transformation from social misfits to the embodiments of middle-class morality is truly hilarious. (Vélez also makes a grand show of her clothing changes, most notably one into a nearly parodic Donna Reed–style dress from costume designer Brooke M. Cohen.) Though her role is much smaller than the others', Angelina Fiordellisi turns the busybody neighbor into a high-flying hoot who represents too keenly what Bill and Nancy are in for.

If it all sounds too good to be true, unfortunately it ultimately is. Though Seidel spends most of the 90-minute evening viciously skewering tropes, in the last seven minutes or so he gives in to them and turns Catch the Butcher into exactly what it's been rebelling against. Vélez and Walker make it work as well as is possible—they're just that good—but if the conclusion is on some level logical, it's a letdown everywhere else, particularly in terms of fun.

Violence, in general, is no laughing matter, but once Seidel has started you down that road, you don't want to exit from it quite so quickly. If Catch the Butcher is in the end unsatisfying because of its finale, the run-up to it is a killer in all the best senses of the word.

Catch the Butcher
Through October 30
Cherry Lane Studio, 35 Commerce Street between Bedford and Barrow
Tickets and current performance schedule: OvationTix