What a mess. 7th Monarch is the title of a confusing new play by Jim Henry, a writer from Chicago who got lucky, at the Acorn on West 42nd Street’s Theatre Row, a show that manages to seduce the audience into thinking something of import is going to happen at any minute. When two hours pass and it becomes obvious that nothing has happened yet, and nothing ever will, you wonder who to turn to in order to complain about it, but by that time the box office is closed and even the ushers are scratching their heads.
This is what I know. In a creepy house that could pass for the Bates Motel in Psycho lives a grown woman named Miriam Hemmerick (Gretchen Hall), who rides around her small hick town in Indiana on a pink child’s bicycle wearing a space helmet. Miriam was born the day of the first space-satellite launch, and she hasn’t been the same since. Lately, she’s been living on microwaveable pot pies paid for by forging and cashing the government Social Security checks made out to her parents, who have mysteriously disappeared. When the play begins, a criminal investigator for the U.S. Social Security Administration named Raina Briar (where do they dream up these names?) is banging on the door. Raina (Leslie Hendrix) wants to know what happened to the parents. Were they murdered? Are they tied up in the basement? Miriam isn’t telling, but she offers Raina a pot pie. Raina refuses. She’s a vegetarian. And she’s too awestruck by the covered mirrors, the fading cabbage-rose wallpaper and the piles of more than 30 years’ of yellowing newspapers stacked all over the floor, chronologically arranged. Miriam says only that her parents flew away, but they are out there somewhere. She mentions the “chosen one” is coming, feels a fit coming on, then passes out cold.
To Raina, this is a case for the criminal court, followed, she envisions, by a long stay in a straitjacket. To the audience, it’s the groundwork for the kind of tantalizing murder mystery nobody writes anymore. Neither does playwright Henry, as it turns out, but more about that later. Meanwhile, enter Leo (Michael Cullen), a scruffy veteran prosecutor with two weeks left before retirement; Grey (Matthew Humphreys), a young court-appointed defense attorney; and Kenneth, the local district attorney who is running for judge and too busy soliciting votes to pay much attention to a nutcase like Miriam. He is played by Michael Rupert, a terrific musical comedy performer I’ve admired since he won a Tony award as a youngster, singing, dancing and stealing scenes from David Wayne and Robert Goulet in the1968 Kander and Ebb show The Happy Time, directed and choreographed by Gower Champion. It’s unusual to see him in a dramatic role, and especially sad that it’s so badly underwritten, but he does not stumble.
On her way to prison for forgery, Miriam has the innocence of an idiot savant. In fact, she has a genius I.Q. of 177. In the ensuing investigation to determine what happened to her parents, Raina finds bloody rags hidden in the rotting newspapers matched by the forensics lab to the blood of the missing father. In the crawlspace under Miriam’s house, the detectives find mathematical quizzes with the number 43 blacked out on each one, a Mason jar of dead butterflies, and astronaut patches from the Apollo space mission. Raina loses interest in the criminal aspects of the case, turns maternal and takes Miriam home to live. Miriam helps her locate her son, who has been missing for years. At the end of two hours, when you find out what happened to Miriam’s own missing parents, you might want to throw something at the stage.
None of this makes any sense, including the title. It might have something to do with the fact that Miriam is the seventh student to be honored by her school since its inception in 1901. There is also some mention of a monarch statue in the yard. And don’t forget those monarch butterflies in the Mason jar. The number 43 turns out to be something carved into Miriam’s back with a knife. Was her father a sadistic pedophile? Or was she obsessed all these years with the memory of a brutal rape in school by a fellow student? Nothing is explained, including why the forgery charges are dropped and Miriam is suddenly cured after a fast bout of scream therapy.
Like just about everything else I’ve seen lately, the parts fail to add up to a satisfying whole. What starts out as a neat psychological thriller ends up a dull combo of Lizzie Borden and The Exorcist. The healing of wounds initiated by a murder investigation that is never developed just gets wonkier by the minute. The focus is on the two women, who seem like a duo of schizophrenics who get weirder as the play drags on, while the three men’s roles are insignificant enough to seem like afterthoughts. Lame direction by Scott C. Embler doesn’t clarify anything. I had a terrible time staying awake. Mr. Henry is not without talent, but he’s written himself into a corner and can’t get out. I wish he could see the baffled looks on the faces of his audience. It would make a much better movie because the eerie events described but never seen could be unreeled in flashbacks, wrapped in special effects, instead of just talked about. What I find worth talking about is the colorful and memorable performance by Gretchen Hall, who somehow, against all odds, manages to make the demented Miriam palpable. The rest of 7th Monarch is psychobabble thinly disguised as a thriller, without a thrill in sight.