Vaudeville, Revamped: <em>A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder</em> Is a Delicious Black Satire

And Billy Crystal’s revival of '700 Sundays' hits the right marks, though they’ve been hit before

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.

How lucky is Jefferson Mays? In the vigorously homicidal new Broadway musical farce A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr Theater, he is the first actor in history to die eight times in every performance. Talk about stealing the show!

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As it turns out, there is a lot of show to steal. Based on the great 1949 Alec Guinness film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, this delicious black satire on the moral decadence of the Edwardian class system in 1909 puts the protean Mr. Mays, the delightful Tony winner from I Am My Own Wife, in the center spot of a spinning top of a show, creatively staged by the talented young director Darko Tresnjak with the breakneck pace of the Kentucky Derby and crossed with the dazzle of a British music hall revue. A singing, dancing serial killer? Think Jack the Ripper in vaudeville.

The plot revolves around an impecunious scoundrel named Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham), writing a memoir of revenge and retribution from a prison cell on the event of his execution. It seems this ambitious bloke discovered by accident that his late mum was disinherited from England’s noble D’Ysquith empire for marrying a Castilian musician and robbed of her rightful fortune, making Monty the eighth heir in line for the title of ninth Earl of Highhurst. All he has to do next is extinguish the other eight relatives, played in a hilarious succession of wigs, accents and outrageous costumes by the ubiquitous Mr. Mays. The zealous thrust of the show is the wit and style with which the aspiring aristocrat dispenses with the stuffy socialites who get in his way before he can claim his fortune and title.

Ingeniously, they meet their fates with destiny in myriad ways. The buck-toothed vicar, Reverend Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, falls from the top of a cathedral. Asquith D’Ysquith, a snobbish dandy in a straw hat and fur coat, faces his maker thanks to a saw and a frozen pond on ice skates. Gay, effeminate cousin Henry D’Ysquith finds to his horror that his beekeeper’s veil has been sprayed with lavender, attracting hundreds of bees to sting him to death. Lady Hyacinth D’Yasquith, a society dowager famous for charitable causes, gets sent to a tribe of cannibals in darkest Africa. Major Lord Bartholomew D’Ysquith, a fitness freak, is a weight lifter beheaded by his own barbells. Hammy actress Lady Salome D’Ysquith takes her final bow onstage in Hedda Gabler after Monty sneaks real bullets into her gun. And so it goes, one wicked stroke of genius after another, accompanied by fresh, funny scenic designs played on an animated backdrop of cracking ice and raging bees, along with rollicking songs by lyricist Steven Lutvak and composer Robert L. Freedman, performed by an able cast that has no trouble reaching the second balcony with perfect pitch.

By the time act two arrives, the show begins to sag. The problem is that all the memorable murders have been completed, and the colorful victims are gone, leaving Jefferson Mays with nothing much to do. The rest of the show, about how Monty gets trapped in his own dastardly plot, is frankly anticlimactic. Alas, Bryce Pinkham works hard to hold attention, but he lacks the charisma to match Mr. Mays’s inspired lunacy. Not to worry: There’s still a surprise ending on the way and more glorious singing by the two lovely, golden-voiced leading ladies, brunette Lisa O’Hare and flame-haired Lauren Worsham. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is the theatrical equivalent of exploding caviar, and Broadway has a new hit for the holidays.

MORE FUN AWAITS at gentle clown Billy Crystal’s autobiographical one-man show, 700 Sundays, first staged in 2004 and brought back by popular demand to Broadway’s Imperial Theatre, where it is playing to a standing room only through Jan. 5. As monologues go, it’s too long (two-and-a-half hours with one brief intermission), too old-fashioned (some of the jokes are so old they’re as hairy as a tarantula’s legs) and too repetitive (“Didn’t he just tell that story?” the man behind me kept asking his wife). But true blue Billy Crystal fans (of which I am one) who have followed him from the Borscht Belt circuit to Saturday Night Live, starring roles in Hollywood movies and TV specials, not to mention memorable hosting chores on the Academy Awards, couldn’t care less if they’ve seen and heard 700 Sundays before on a national tour or between the pages of a book. They come to laugh, applaud and enjoy his charms all over again. And Mr. Crystal never fails to give them what they want.

Do not expect originality or informed opinion culled from the op-ed pages of The Washington Post. He throws in an occasional joke about Obamacare, but that’s about as hip as it gets. This nostalgic monologue is about the past, a childhood memory piece about happier times and simpler pleasures. The set is the house he grew up in, at 549 Park Avenue in Long Beach, N.Y. The title is the approximate number of Sundays he spent with his beloved dad before he died when Billy was 15. The show begins when he was nine, the day his father drove home a brand new Plymouth Belvedere and his salty mother said sighing, “I wish he had waited till next year; the new Edsel’s coming out.” It’s that kind of show. His father owned the Commodore Music Shop in Times Square, where little Billy developed his lifelong passion for movies and jazz. Billie Holiday once took him to see Shane, and when Alan Ladd rode off into the sunset at the end, she snarled, “He ain’t comin’ back.” You get stories about growing up with the New York Yankees, weekends watching Ed Sullivan and Sid Caesar and hanging out at Coney Island. You get the Catskills jokes like: “I got five penises.” “How do your pants fit?” “Like a glove.”

The ouch factor dominates, yet unlike most one-man shows, he doesn’t test your patience. The jokes are corny, but they are delivered with perfect timing and come in such rapid succession (one of his early stand-up comic influences must have been Henny Youngman) you don’t have time to test them for freshness or relevance. Between tales of raging hormones and high school musicals, you meet the aunts, uncles, parents, cousins and everyone else who ever contributed a hammer or a nail to the comedy career of one Billy Crystal. You get to know them so well, in fact, that by the end of the first act, you’ve learned everything you need to know, accompanied by home movies that are often more hilarious than the monologue itself.

Milton Berle always said the art of the stand-up artist is knowing when to get off. After the intermission, the pace slows, and the good will in the funny first act turns sentimental, maudlin and uncomfortable when all of the relatives start dying. Mr. Crystal hasn’t found a sure way to exit, so he just does a cartwheel (at age 65, yet), walks through the same door of his entrance at the top of the show, and it’s time for the final bows. The unevenness is disappointing. Still, you leave with the feeling that you’ve spent some quality time with a nice guy you’d like to know better. There’s nothing mysterious or elusive about Mr. Crystal, no lurid secrets to uncover. He’s the cousin who drops in for a highball on Christmas Day and leaves before dinner reaches the table.

The purpose of any successful one-man show is to make the audience feel like they’ve learned something they never knew before, providing ace entertainment while doing it. Mr. Crystal succeeds at both goals, and a good time is had by all.

STARRING Jefferson Mays, Bryce Pinkham, Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham
WRITTEN BY Steven Lutvak and Robert L. Freedman
DIRECTED BY Darko Tresnjak
Walter Kerr Theater

STARRING Billy Crystal
WRITTEN BY Billy Crystal
Imperial Theatre

Vaudeville, Revamped: <em>A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder</em> Is a Delicious Black Satire