'Perfect Crime' Commits Perennial Fun Off Broadway

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Psychologist Margaret Thorne Brent persuaded one of her patients to engage in a deadly game of dream analysis. She manipulated him into this behavior eight times last week. And she has been doing it eight times a week, every week for the last 9-1/2 years.

Dr. Brent is the principal character in the off-Broadway mystery phenomenon "Perfect Crime," currently running at New York's Duffy Theatre, on Broadway, north of Times Square. And for every performance except four during all those years, actress Catherine Russell has portrayed the doctor.

This tenacious little play continues to defy the odds, as it pulls in audiences night after night. The phenomenal success of the show can be attributed to two different sets of reasons: the show's genre and the business acumen of its producing partners.

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"I never really appreciated mysteries and thrillers until I started working on this play," says Russell. "People who like to do crossword puzzles like this play. They have to work, but there's a payoff at the end. The play works as a thriller, and as an actual story, tracing the twisted story of a psychologist, her lover, her husband, and a murder plot that involves deception, altered identities, and psychological manipulation." But for all its serious subject matter, the play can be enjoyed by families.

"I've broken the record for somebody doing consecutive performances without a vacation," Russell says, adding quickly, "and I really like what I do." Russell is scheduled for the 4,004th performance today.

"From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to be onstage, in a play. So I'm getting to do what I like to do. And because the play is kind of complicated, I still find it interesting."

"Perfect Crime" started its long life modestly, Russell recalls. "I was a member of a theater company called the Actors Collective, and Warren Manzi, the playwright, was the artistic director." Written years earlier, and at one time optioned for a Broadway run, the piece "was sitting in a drawer for seven years. We decided to do it in this little theater in [Greenwich] Village, figuring it would run 16 performances and that would be it."

The show caught the attention of a New York Times critic, who proclaimed that it "sends electric thrills up the spine." Armed with the review, and a growing favorable word-of-mouth, they were up and running.

Enter director Jeffrey Hyatt's uncle, Armand Hyatt. "He'd never produced anything before. He's a small-town lawyer and raised about $15,000 or $20,000 dollars." That money permitted the show to move to a better theater.

"It wasn't a lot of money. Our set came from a dumpster. We borrowed all of the costumes. It was definitely low-budget," Russell grins.

Seated in the play's living-room set, she laughs at the memory of all the moves the show has endured, prompted by lease changes, rent increases, or the possibility of better conditions. "I think we moved nine times."

And in its early days, the play itself underwent changes. "The play was originally 3-1/2 hours, like 'Perfect Crime - The Miniseries.' We opened April 18, [1987], and there was massive rewriting that went on until September. Warren would come backstage during intermission and say to me, 'Can you put this speech into the second act?' "

Russell's involvement does not stop at the footlights. Since its inception, Russell has functioned as the play's general manager, overseeing all the business decisions.

"I'm out there ripping tickets before the show. Some nights I'll take out the garbage."

And when the show sought a permanent home back in 1993, Russell found the space. She doubled, or tripled, as general contractor during the renovation, "so for about a year and a half, I was covered in paint every day."

Russell's canny business sense has contributed to the show's longevity, now No. 2 in consecutive performances, behind the perennial "The Fantasticks."

"I find the business end so interesting," she says. "Every mistake you could possibly make, we made," she laughs. Her experience has yielded some valuable lessons, however, among them "that you don't have to spend money on big ads in the newspaper - unless you have a big star."

Modestly, she points out that "there are no stars in this show. No one's going to say, 'Catherine Russell! I have to go see this show!' "

Instead, the show never misses a day in The New York Times play directory listing, called the ABCs, and on occasion, also advertises in City Guide, a compilation of attractions often used by tourists. And by distributing fliers at the always-busy half-price TKTS ticket booth at Times Square, across the street from the theater, the show attracts visitors who may not have heard of it but like the idea that it's close, less expensive than Broadway, and something children can attend. Russell notes, "Our tickets are only $35 - and $20 at the booth."

Russell assesses that the show "is having the best year it's ever had. I don't see us closing any time soon." She does concede that, at some point, "I might get tired of doing it. But I'd still probably remain involved at some level, as general manager."

For now, Russell says, she's looking forward to planning a 10-year party this spring.

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