On stage: `No Way to Treat a Lady'

No Way to Treat a Lady Musical with book, music, and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen. Based on the novel by William Goldman. Directed by Jack Hofsiss. ``No Way to Treat a Lady,'' at the Hudson Guild Theatre, is a cleverly preposterous musical-comedy thriller about a serial murder case. Working from the William Goldman novel and the 1968 movie, Douglas J. Cohen has fashioned a bizarre entertainment filled with stage tricks and diverting surprises.

The plot centers on a battle of wits between a pair of mother's boys. ``Kit'' Gill (Stephen Bogardus), the publicity-hungry killer, is obsessed with avenging himself on his late and unlamented mother, a glamorous stage star whose ghost haunts him and taunts him for his lack of success. Morris Brummell (Peter Slutsker), the methodical detective on the case, lives with a Jewish mom who personifies that familiar caricature down to the last kvetch.

One of the numerous crafty devices of the production, neatly staged by Jack Hofsiss, is to cast June Gable as both mothers. Since Miss Gable also plays the assorted victims of Kit's homicides, the protean actress is giving the kind of performance that spells bravura. The same can be said for Mr. Bogardus as the psychotic Kit, who disguises himself ingeniously for his acts of fatal maltreatment and who caps his crimes with harassing telephone calls to the dogged plainclothes man. Meanwhile, in his rare off-duty hours, Morris is pursuing romance with Sarah Stone (svelte Liz Callaway), an art gallery employee who happens to live across the hall from Kit's first victim.

Mr. Cohen juggles the improbable fiction in a deft progression of dialogues and musical numbers. The songs are sharply composed in the modern lyric-theater manner - listenable if not (at first hearing) hummable. The performances by the excellent acting foursome receive the assists of a first-class production: David Jenkins's spare setting with incidental doors, Beverly Emmons's often spooky lighting, and Michael Kaplan's costumes. The accompaniment by a backstage combo under Uel Wade's conductorship matches Danny Troob's snappy orchestrations. Christopher Chadman choreographed the show.

``No Way to Treat a Lady'' marks a forward stride for playwright-composer-lyricist Cohen, a triple-threat man who received a Richard Rodgers Development Grant for the work.

Facile as it is, however, the psycho-musical comedy does little to engage the spectator emotionally. It lacks the heart which, as a ``Damn Yankees'' song reminds us, you gotta have. Next time, perhaps? Meanwhile, suspense with music continues at the Hudson Guild through June 30.

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