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This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 28, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `The Killing of Michael Malloy'

It was the worst of times. Fifteen million people were homeless, 13 million unemployed. It was the Great Depression, and this, plus the rigors of Prohibition, forms the background for "The Killing of Michael Malloy," by Erik Jendresen, playing through Sunday, November 1, at the Bristol Riverside Theater.

The play, set in a Bronx cellar speakeasy in the winter of 1933, is no murder mystery. Billed as a dark comedy, it is about five men who take out life insurance on a hapless drunk they plan to murder. Jendresen creates vivid, well-drawn characters and he writes wonderfully comic lines. Many of the lines set audience members laughing, however dreadful the context -- the group has already murdered the bartender's wife for insurance money.

While you don't need a Depression for people to take out an insurance policy on someone, name themselves as beneficiary, then murder the person for the insurance money -- it has happened since -- usually one attempt to murder succeeds. Not here. Although the dialogue is invented, the play is a true crime tale, dramatizing actual events of January and February, 1933.

At the play's opening, the five men are playing poker for the insurance money that the death of the bartender's new wife has brought them. Malloy, a drunk and a bum, stumbles in and collapses with rag doll limpness before he's thrown out. But when the thug Tony Bastone, demanding money for liquor deliveries, holds a gun to speakeasy owner Tony Marino's head, Marino buys his life with all the money on the table, his own and the other players'. The other men demand their money; and decide to try their murder-for-insurance-money scheme on Malloy.

So what's comic about murder? Malloy doesn't die. Seven times he evades death. Brilliantly played by the rubber-faced Maurice Roeves, who created the role in Los Angeles, his performance alone is worth the price of a ticket. Malloy first is charmingly disheveled, loose as a puppet, and has the requisite Irish brogue. If the plotters seem like the Three Stooges, Malloy is a child's toy that keeps popping up. Quantities of liquor ("on the house"), turpentine, horse liniment, rotten oysters, freezing water, and an attempt to run him down with a car -- nothing kills him. He remains innocently unsuspecting, even as the Irish barmaid, Molly, ably performed by Rita Taggart, warns him, "they're trying to kill you."

Ron Link, who directed "Malloy" in Los Angeles, directs with intelligence and a fast-paced realism suited to the tough, surly schemers. Besides Marino, they are Francis (Andrew Fiscella), the Italian undertaker, Hersh (Dan Gerrity), a cab driver, Danny (Anthony Barrile), a green grocer; and Murph (John Jezior), a notably stupid bartender. As Hersh, Gerrity is outstanding; all the performers are convincing.

Malloy is no throwaway person. He doesn't succumb, but becomes philosophical. Malloy now has insights -- sometimes comical -- on everything from starlight, to human life, to sex, the past, the future, death, and himself. He is suddenly wise, psychic, prescient about Marino, who feebly objects as the others set off to kill Malloy by gassing. (We assume, from the play's title, that they are successful; but it's done offstage.)

Immediately the resilient Malloy (alive or dead) appears to Marino, who is alone on stage in dimmed light. Marino now becomes the main character, for Malloy causes Marino, convincingly played by Hugh O'Gorman, to reveal painful memories of his father. But with the change of mood and shift of focus, the play ceases to be a comedy.

The performance, staging, set by David Mitchell, dialogue, and acting are excellent. Malloy's comments are wise and remarkable. But, skewed at its ending, the play finally loses its single-minded darkly comic direction.

-- Joan Crespi

The Killing of Michael Malloy, Bristol Riverside Theater , 120 Radcliffe Street, 215-785-6664. $25-$29. To November 1.


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