IF YOU GO
"Art of Murder" has two more performances, at 8 p.m. Friday, August 31 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1. Tickets are $20. Call 239-936-3239 or online at theatreconspiracy.org.
FORT MYERS — Joe DiPietro's dark art-world satire "Art of Murder" takes a paint bucket of "angry artist" cliches and slings them at the canvas. One character posits that the ideal client is "famous, productive and dead." Unfortunate then that Theatre Conspiracy's production lands as flat as it does.
Arrogant antagonist Jack Brooks (Miguel Cintron) never met a rage he didn't like. His latest, "Study in Red #4," is a yellow canvas - without predecessors. He demands a million dollars for his pain and pigment. Snotty art deal Vincent Cummings (Chas Greer), knows the limits of Jack's minimal talent. After all, Vincent created "Jack Brooks" with his patented publicity machine. Jack's meek wife Annie (Denise Scott) daubs paint to her own easel in the corner, but dares not contradict her "talented" husband.
Except everyone lies about everything. Bullets. Whiskey. Isolation chambers. Suicide notes. Champagne bottles. Stacked canvases. A shoe collage that looks like "A Payless Shoes exploded." Young artists. Bad artists. Brilliant artists. And one salient piece of advice: "Never drink after a murder."
This is my third experience with "Art of Murder," after seeing productions at Florida Rep in 2009 and the Naples Players in 2011. I missed the first two weekends on my vacation and caught the Thursday, August 30 show.
Coming so early in the season, director Mike Breen likely got the cast he wanted for this show. Cintron's temperamental flights feel realistic - and he makes a case during Jack's murderous "spree" in the second act. Greer, in his first role after a long layoff, brings sniveling, squirming glee to his slimy art dealer. Scott goes from sterile to steely during her transformation from victim to vicious.
Yet, there's never a sense that Breen ever convinced his cast of the need to work together in any given scene to drive momentum, action, drama or comic timing. Right up until the point where bullets start flying, the play itself feels like someone steamrollered it.
Too often, there's a sense of three different actors in three different plays - even when Jack, Vincent and Annie are sharing a scene. Much of DiPietro's biting subtext - about the vicious nature of the art world - gets lost as the actors fail to put any spin on incredibly self-indulgent lines.
Even if both halves come in under 45 minutes each, I wish Breen had ratcheted up both the noise and the speed of the dialogue. Or at the very least, gotten the characters to sharpen their tones and inflections so that the verbal battles felt like battles - not just a ping-pong of sentences.
I never felt as if the piece had any real rhythm - or intent behind the actions. Everything needs to be heightened, tense, almost as if the audience were as taut as a guitar string. Lines like "I'm an artist! Don't judge me!" land almost as softly as drifting snow sometimes.
Bill Taylor's set, with mod furniture provided by Denmark Interiors and original artwork by Lia Galletti, impresses. I wish Theatre Conspiracy had found a way to create sound effects for the isolation tank's water and magnet noises though.
Costume design, uncredited, made me smile. Greer's outre suit (it looks like shiny leather, worn over a purple shirt) fits the art world perfectly. Cintron's striped convict bathing outfit (for the isolation tank) hints at Jack's dark side, while Annie's simple, yet chic emerald blouse hides her darker intentions. Brittany Albury (showing off a delightful Irish accent as maid Kate), gets a nifty coat.
Even if the production doesn't always satisfy, "Art of Murder" offers an intriguing look inside the scheming, snarky and always entertaining world of high-powered art. Performances, like Cintron's angry Jack or Scott's shifty Annie, provide glimpses of sardonic glee. Look to the final 10 minutes for gunshots, thrills and multiple double-crosses.
I'd take margaritas over murder any day. Email me, email@example.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.