Theater Review: ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’

Delicious fun
December 21, 2013 Updated: December 22, 2013    

NEW YORK—They don’t make shows like A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder very often—which is probably a good thing. When one does come around, it makes us appreciate it all the more.

With book and lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak, and based on a novel by Roy Horniman, the show is a wonderful combination of black comedy, social satire, romance, and melodrama.

London 1909: Poor but honest Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) is visited by Miss Shingle (Jane Carr), an old friend of his recently deceased mother. She tells him he is a member of the D’Ysquith clan, a well-respected and prosperous English family.

The D’Ysquiths disinherited his mother when she married against their wishes. In addition, they refused to help after her husband died several years later, forcing her to take to scrubbing floors to earn a living.

Miss Shingle also reveals that Monty is ninth in line to inherit the family title Earl of Highhurst and the vast estate that comes with it. After Monty’s attempt to contact the D’Ysquiths is rebuffed, and blaming them for what happened to his mother, he begins a plot of revenge and murder against those who stand in his way.

This plotline would make for a good thriller, but the show’s creators leaven the text with musical and comedic elements, making most of the eight targeted D’Ysquiths larger than life and ripe for parody.

It also helps that all the characters are played by Jefferson Mays who often takes them wonderfully over the top. Yet he still finds a bit of humanity in most of them—even as they’re pooh-poohing the less fortunate and busily indulging in pleasures of the flesh and spirit.

Through it all, Monty methodically plans the different D’Ysquith demises, but does so without sacrificing any of his own quiet humility, so as not to make him appear unsympathetic in his endeavors.

Monty is also struggling with his relationship with Sibella (Lisa O’Hare), a woman he loves dearly though he cannot provide the many material comforts she craves. As such, she soon marries another, though she and Monty happily continue their clandestine affair.

Yet when Monty becomes interested in his distant cousin, Phoebe (Lauren Worsham), Sibella becomes violently jealous. This romantic triangle leads to some very embarrassing, uncomfortable, and farcical moments.

The show is helped tremendously by the very enjoyable score. Some of the highlights include “I Don’t Understand the Poor,” where Mays, as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, comically demonstrates his inability to relate to those in different social strata. Also, “A Warning to the Audience,” which opens the first act and “Why Are All the D’Ysquiths Dying,” which opens the second, are tunes that perfectly showcase the black humor of the story.

Mays, whose performance calls to mind English actor Terry Thomas, often steals the show as the various family members. He plays some of them quite seriously, some rather happy-go-lucky, and others as pure caricatures, yet all brim with a passion for life in their own way.

Pinkham does quite well as the quiet and complex Monty, whose qualities help to differentiate him from the showier Mays.

O’Hare is great fun as the material-minded Sibella who loves Monty on her own terms—ones that she demonstrates in the number ‘I Don’t Know What I’d Do.’

Worsham is fine as the sheltered Phoebe who may have a heretofore unknown inner strength, which she may very well need before long.

Doing a wonderful turn is Joanna Glushak as Lord Adalbert’s long-suffering wife. Husband and wife engage in some rather caustic verbal battles, which wouldn’t be that out of place in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Darko Tresnjak’s direction works perfectly, helping to keep the various parts of the story moving in perfect unison with nothing feeling forced or unrealistic. Choreography by Peggy Hickey also is quite important here, working well throughout.

Alexander Dodge’s sets are wonderful to behold, from the D’Ysquith ancestral home to Monty’s lodgings, to a frozen lake for skating. Costumes by Linda Cho are enjoyable, and orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick are excellent.

Served up with a heaping helping of satire, a pinch of social consciousness, and an important lesson about the power of love and the dangers of turning your back on one of your own, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder makes for a very entertaining experience indeed.

Also in the cast are Jennifer Smith, Catherine Walker, Jeff Kready, Price Waldman, Eddie Korbich, and Roger Purnell.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or visit telecharge.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Open run

Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.