BASICS: SOMETHING WICKED, a new play by James Marzo, directed by Matthew LaChiusa, presented by American Repertory Theatre, runs through November 20 at 545 Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo. Thursday and Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 5pm (artofwny.org) (716) 697-0837 Pay what you can. Proof of full Covid vaccination required. Beer, wine, coffee, water, but no soda pop available. Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: A roadside historical marker in the Town of Boston, NY describes the “SITE OF THE JOHN LOVE MURDER – Dec. 15, 1824 – The Thayer brothers, Isaac, Israel and Nelson, unable to repay the debt they owed to Great Lakes seaman, John Love, murdered him in Israel’s home where Love was a boarder. They were tried and hanged at Buffalo, June 7, 1825. A great crowd witnessed this, the only public hanging in Erie County.”
They were tried and hanged at Buffalo, June 7, 1825. A great crowd witnessed this, the only public hanging in Erie County.
Playwright James Marzo has dramatized the “backstory” leading to that execution including the Thayer brothers’ plot to avoid debtors’ prison by murdering the money lender Love, then burying him in a shallow grave, keeping his horse and effects, and then demanding payments from Love’s other debtors. All true.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION
THE PLAYERS include Suzanne Hibbard portraying the narrator “Sadie” who is also the owner/operator of The Eagle Tavern (an actual establishment located at the time, I believe, near Lafayette Square). Charles McGregor, Justin Pope, and Joshua Leary are the Thayer brothers. The oldest was Nelson, the bully and mastermind, then Israel, the alcoholic would-be lover of Sadie, then Isaac, the youngest and the most attuned to the entrepreneurial spirit of the age but whose dreams are ignored in favor of easy money. David Wysocki was “Deputy Willard.”
The evening’s most satisfying portrayals came from two older performers who in the spirit of Morgan “Less is More” Freeman gave quiet, commanding performances – John F Kennedy as “Under Sheriff Torrey” and Michael Breen as the calculating business man John Love. Music Direction is credited to Len Mendez with Susan King providing very appropriate incidental music at the piano and organ and providing entr’acte music when singing with her guitar.
THE PLAY takes its name from the three weird sisters in Shakespeare who intone, as Macbeth approaches, “By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes.” Macbeth, that wicked thing himself is, of course, the poster boy for self-advancement through murder. And the murderous plot seems to come, in this story, from the oldest brother, Nelson, presented as lazy and unable to earn a living through the family farm which provided ample opportunity to grow crops, raise hogs, and sell timber. All of that would have been in great demand by the growing city of Buffalo, just beginning to recover from being burned in the War of 1812, and just on the eve of fabulous wealth that would come from the Erie Canal in 1825.
If you look at the playbill, the scenes in Act I and Act II as listed actually do proceed in chronological order, from the summer of 1824 through the winter concluding with the public hanging on June 17th1825. Unfortunately, at least to me, it seemed that playwright Marzo was not interested in creating a police procedural and the through line wasn’t always clear. Perhaps he was fleshing out the characters of the three brothers, to give them some humanity, so that they weren’t just “something wicked.” If the attempt was to get us to “hate the sin but love the sinner” it didn’t work for me. And often when we got back to the main plot, the actors had to overcome inertia, which I believe led to a bit of the over acting or emoting that bothered me.
THE PRODUCTION has many fine elements including a superb set constructed mostly out of discarded industrial pallets. Beauty on a Budget. Sometimes front lit, sometimes back lit, stained, they are a fitting backdrop for the rough, crude Thayer boys. Placement of the piano (cleverly disguised with more pallets) to our left and the vintage bar to our right provide a nice balance to the mostly bare stage which allows for quick scene changes with just a few pieces of furniture.
At one high point, a lightweight mock-up of a cell door is carried in by an actor and throughout the scene is held upright by one actor or another in one of the finest examples of synecdoche (“the part for the whole”) I’ve ever seen. That one object communicated an entire cell, as a number of different characters pleaded with each other through the bars on either side. It was a very impressive bit of theater.
Also impressive were the costumes including the sheriff’s and the youngest Thayer brother, played by Joshua Leary, whose boots, shirt, suspenders, and especially hair reminded me of “Buffalo Newsboy, 1853” by American painter Thomas Le Clear owned by the Albright Knox or “Cider Making, 1840” by American painter William Sidney Mount in the Met Fifth Avenue Museum.
Fun (?) Fact #1: While the population of Buffalo was only 2,000 in 1825, an estimated 20,000 or possibly even 30,000 attended the public hanging in Niagara Square, roughly where the front steps of Buffalo’s City Hall now stand. Public executions were a major entertainment but, we were informed at the “talk back,” that was not their purpose. As towns and cities across America incorporated in a nation that was only a few decades old, it was felt necessary to demonstrate that “law and order” prevailed. The city fathers expected Buffalo to grow exponentially once the Erie Canal opened and Buffalo should be seen as a safe community in which to live and do business. A public execution was seen as the best way to advertise this fact. Apparently, it took only one to get the point across.
While the population of Buffalo was only 2,000 in 1825, an estimated 20,000 or possibly even 30,000 attended the public hanging in Niagara Square.
Fun (?) Fact #2: The real life English businessman John Love from the early 1800s is not to be confused with William T. Love, the railroad entrepreneur who in 1890 began construction of a preplanned urban community that was to be called Model City. Excavations, including a mile of that canal, were halted due to financial panics, and the area was ultimately used by Hooker Chemical to dispose of toxic waste, in the now infamous “Love Canal.” Different person. Different canal.
The final three shows are November 18th and 19th at 7:30 pm, closing Saturday November 20th after the 5 pm performance.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!