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A CurtainUp Review
Spread Eagle

Someone ought to put a moratorium on modifying Brian Murray's name with the adjective "ubiquitous" and just stick to the more apt "outstanding." The fact that he appears so often on stage is due in large measure to his ability to play starring and supporting roles and always does so outstandingly. That's why his appearance in any play always and justifiably raises one's hopes for good things to come.

As the star of the just opened world premiere of Spread Eagle, Murray once again lives up to expectations. The role he plays is made to order for him: Toby Arundel, a flamboyant actor, specializing in Shakespearian roles experiences burnout. He has wearied of his long time lover Humphrey (Graeme Malcolm) and yearns for a respite from the demands of his career. A trip to Mexico turns into an extended vacation from his London-New York life. It also brings a kind of passion he thought was strictly in the past. The object of his affection is Javier (Matthew Salvidar), the son of his villa's chief servant Arturo (Steve Mones). It is a passion made more intense by a new-for-Toby fatherly affection. (Toby actually adopts the boy the heat of passion-driven compassion.

Written by Jim Luigs, whose delightful Off-Broadway Musical Das Barbecü brightened the stage of the Minetta Lane some seasons back, the script provides Murray and the nine other actors with sharp and often funny dialogue. To cite just a few of Murray's lines: To an inane television interviewer's (Anne James) question about what attracts him to the theater, Toby quips "lack of film offers." To the slimy, blackmailing Mexican butler he says "What an excellent politician or theatrical agent you would have made."

Director Constance Grappo moves the actors (some of whom play multiple parts with great flair) through the play's three locales. Given the smallish raked stage this is quite a feat and both set designer Debra Booth and lighting designer Jack Mehler deserve much credit for bringing it off. The opening scene, showing the back of the actors taking their bows, immediately sets the tone for the follow-up dressing room scene with its amusing backstage patter. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are also right on the mark, with the get-up for Murray's stint as Captain Hook perfect for one of the evening's most hilarious and most Das Barbecü - like moments.

Murray and company, and the fine staging aside, how does the play measure up as a substantative work? Ah, there's the rub.

Plays about flamboyant actors and their hangers-on are invariably fun to watch, and Spread Eagle is at its best when it focuses on Toby Arundel the actor and his entourage which besides the flippantly flamboyant Humphrey includes his long time actor friend Gwyneth (Patricia Kilgariff). It's when Toby's world collides with the contrasting culture of poor Mexicans and builds towards thriller-tragedy that this eagle doesn't quite soar. Instead of flashes of Present Laughter and Two Shakespearian Actors wit we find ourselves in territory reminscent of Somerset Maugham -- but without the tautness and solid clues needed to build up to the Englishmen-in-foreign-land melodramas Maugham did so well. The clues provided in Humphrey's most serious scene, when he accuses Toby of having "crossed the line" and Gwyneth's question "are you safe?" somehow seem stuck in rather than smoothly integrated.

The failure of the documentary drama/suspense thriller aspects of the story (see addendum at end) is the fatal flaw that in the final analysis prevents Spread Eagle from being more than an almost successful play. That's not to say that the actors portraying the Mexican characters are not as good as the ones playing the characters in Toby's professional and private. Steve Mones is properly sinister as the ambitious servant and Matthew Saldivar is an appealing Javier. Joe Quintero as Diego, the boy Arturo perceives as a threat to his plans for Javier, is fine in the initial master class situation growing out of Toby's "trouble with La Dolce Vita" but unfortuantely veers towards burlesque later.

With Murray at the helm, Patricia Kilgarriff as his best friend and fellow actor, and Graeme Malcom as his marvelously foppish old lover Humphrey Pritchard, there's much in Spread Eagle to enjoy. Too bad it's not as memorable as it initially promised to be.

Editor's Note, 12/17/98: It turns out that the comments on the play's documentary flavor were not fanciful. While there's no mention of it in the program notes or the press materials, playwright Luigs was apparently inspired by a real murder involving actor George Rose of Mystery of Edwin Drood and Pirates of Penzance fame. The real murder hinged on rumors about an adopted teen ager and took place in the Dominican Republic and the fact that the program notes make no mention of it may be less an oversight than a desire to steer clear of complaints from anyone close to Rose.

By Jim Luigs
Directed byConstance Grappo
Starring Brian Murray and Patricia Kilgarriff
With Mark Dold, Graeme Malcolm, Steve Mones, Joe Quintero, Anne James and Matt Saldivar.
Set design: Debra Booth
Costume design: Ilona Somofyi
Lighting design: Frances Aronson
Sound design: Robert Murphy
WPA Theatre , 519 West 23rd Street (betw. 10th and 11th Aves -- (212/206-0523)
11/27/98-1/03/99; opening 12/15/99
Seen 12/11/98 and reviewed by Elyse Sommer

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© Elyse Somme, December 1998