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A CurtainUp Review
Catch the Butcher
By Ellen Mareneck
In Adam Seidel's new dark comedy, Catch the Butcher at the Cherry Lane Theatre, we meet Nancy (Lauren Luna Velez), an attractive 40-something woman who could be kindred spirits with Ms. Mitchell. Nancy spends most of the play trying to win the heart and mind of Bill (Jonathan Walker), who abducts her, stabs her, and threatens to murder her, claiming he is a Texas-based serial killer.
Nancy doesn't just want Bill's compassion so he will release her: she has followed his macabre killing spree of 11 other Texas women in the media, and deliberately loiters in the park where he stalks his prey, intending to be his 12th victim. She wants Bill to write a poem for her before he kills her. The media has published his poems for his other victims, and Nancy believes that a perceptive poem from Bill would give meaning to her otherwise unremarkable life. It seems hard to empathize with a woman who wants to be romantically involved with a serial killer even though experts claim this desire is not uncommon.
It seems hard to empathize with a woman who wants to be romantically involved with a serial killer even though experts claim this desire is not uncommon. The attraction to "bad boys" is nothing new, but Seidel's script takes this narrative in new and unexpected directions. During 100 minutes we witness a creepy, funny, macabre love story unfold. Director Valentina Fratti must be credited with transforming a premise based on horror into a lonely hearts comedy. That said, Catch the Butcher often lurches eerily and uncomfortably between both genres.
When the lights come up Nancy sits casually on a park bench reading. She slowly looks up and notices a man watching her. Their eyes meet and she smiles, but he quickly departs. Still sitting on the bench sometime later (indicated by a blackout), she sees him again and seems disappointed when he leaves. The third time we see her on the bench is at night. Suddenly, the man sneaks up behind her and puts a cloth over her mouth. When the lights come back up, Nancy is chained to a chair in an empty room. Bill, a 40-something professional, now dressed in a suit, enters and asks Nancy to scream as loud as she can. Nancy does, but not for long.
Soon we see Nancy interrogating Bill about why he kills women and Bill smugly showing his various tools for torture (knives, hammers, saws, and so on). He's flattered by her attention and knowledge of his two-year murder spree as "The Butcher of Harbour Park."
We slowly learn that Nancy is no hapless victim and see her self-assurance and groupie-like giddiness shake her sadistic captor to his core. Though he at first thinks Nancy is just "playing him" to save her own skin, but when he realizes that she does not fear death and has attempted suicide, the tables turn. Bill eventually frees Nancy, but instead of running away, she declares love for her captor and refuses to leave his house.
The over-the-top, farcical nature of their coming together and making a go of it as a couple exposes the desperation that fuels their shared fantasy. Seidel effectively uses the exaggerated circumstances between Nancy and Bill to shine a light on the more subtle and more believable realm of troubled relationships: romances rooted in abuse, power imbalances, and unrealistic expectations. He also explores the effects of outdated gender roles. Despite the fact that he nearly killed her, Nancy still wants to marry Bill and is eager to cater to his culinary whims which fits his vision of a woman's main functions as cleaning and cooking.
The playwright puts these characters in a situation so dire that you want to dismiss it from the get-go as too far-fetched and dramatic. However, you can't because they catch us in their clutches. Lauren Luna Velez's Nancy is especially fascinating —, down-to-earth, yet determined to self-destruct before our eyes. And Jonathan Walker's Bill recalls the leading men of Dexter and Fifty Shades of Grey. The dialogue is in turns funny, ironic, ominous and even heart wrenching.
According to experts, there are several reasons why women fall in love with dangerous criminals —fantasy, power, and status —and Nancy embraces all three. Yet what happens when the real world intrudes on this self-contained fantasy (in the form of a cloying, determinedly friendly neighbor named Joanne, played brilliantly by Angelina Fiordellis) will keep you on the edge of your seat. Confronted with an older, experienced woman who urges submissive Nancy to show Bill who is really the boss in their relationship, Bill's ego and pride ultimately bring both of our protagonists to the end they seem destined to fulfill.
The sparse, monotone set, simple lighting, and the mixture of ominous background sounds interspersed with twangy country-western ballads underscore this dark, nightmarish, yet strangely normal world. The ending is a shock, even though we see it coming, and we even feel a bit betrayed —we were just beginning to believe in the fantasy that anything was possible.