Zoe Carides in Murderers 2

It’s grand to see great writing hasn’t gone completely out of fashion. Perhaps it’s a case, to paraphrase Pierre Cardin (or was it Coco?), of style never going out of fashion. It’s also sobering to know murder’s still in. Not any old murder, of course. But justifiable homicide.

Jeffrey Hatcher, who might just be the most prolific of all US playwrights by now, has written for one of my all-time fave television characters, in Peter Falk’s Columbo, so I guess he has a suitably devious mind to write Murderers, which has just made its Australian premiere at the Ensemble.

And what a cast: Nancye Hayes, as Lucy Stickler; the ageless Zoe Carides (pictured), as Minka Lupino; Richard Sydenham, as Gerald Halverson. Sydenham? Sure, before now I really only knew the name as a local railway station, but legend has it he’s worked for most of the major theatre companies and it’s easy to see why: even in this company, his was, very arguably, the most polished performance of all.

Mark Kilmurry has eked very carefully constructed characters out of these fine actors, so they look even finer. From very specific accents (dialect coach Nick Curnow’s contributions seem to have proved invaluable) to physical manifestations, they’re not only plausible and credible, but thoroughly convincing.

Designer Claire Moloney has shown restraint and taste in thoughtful placement of three elegant leather chairs, a plant and not much more: the actors are the set, something that’s both achievable and desirable, since Hatcher’s evocative pen paints such vivid pictures for us; so much so it could be a radio play. Peter Neufeld has worked a little lighting magic too.

Gerald is up first, weaving a tale of a pragmatic gigolo, who marries his defacto mother-in-law so she might pass on more of her inheritance by outsmarting the IRS. Well, something like that. In telling the story of how he came to be a murderer, Gerald must create voices for a range of unseen others who feature prominently in the saga.

There can be few more challenging demands made of any stage actor, but Sydenham doesn’t miss a beat, as he literally pivots on his heels to play out all sides of a conversation. At the same time, his vocal delivery switches to suit. So much potential for things to go awry, but nothing did.

The same was true, ostensibly, for Hayes and Carides: there might have been the odd stumble, but with such dense, complex, fast-paced monologues, it’s hard not to forgive at least that. Of course, if you like physicality on stage, you won’t revel so much in this play, since it’s all about the stories and clever (but not boastful) linguistic tricks.

All the murders take place in or near Riddle Key Retirement Community and Golf Course — the sort of place Jerry Seinfeld’s parents might’ve ended up. Lucy Stickler is an otherwise demure lady whose husband’s philandering and ineffectual deceptions have finally got the better of her. Minka Lupino, an insider, an employee, irked by the unseemly haste with which benefactors clamour for their inheritances. She is the most appealingly self-righteous murderer, on something of a crusade to right wrongs: truth, justice, the American way; all of that. While it’s relatively easy to feel for all their predicaments, it was Lupino who most roundly indulged my personal homicidal tendencies, which tend to be inspired by consumerist motives. Perhaps murder fantasies are the new black, in drama. Or perhaps it’s just me.

Lupino’s muse happens to be an elderly crime fiction writer, who lives on-site. Piquant, as it echoes Hatcher’s talent for creating scenarios that ring true and present a case, or situation, which warrants or even veritably necessitates murder. Maybe it’s writers, then, we should look to, even before butlers, as prime suspects.

One can picture the processions of golfcarts, on quiet boulevards, the buffets (such lousy food and in such small portions), the toupees, Zimmer-frames, white shoes and Hawaiian shirts; one can hear the inane conversations, the shuffle of canasta cards and dragging feet.

This is the art of Jeffrey Hatcher, superbly realised by Kilmurry and his brilliant cast. Wry and venal, Murderers is a real killer.

Curtain Call rating: A

The details: Murderers plays the Ensemble Theatre until November 20. Tickets on the company website.

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