Kill My Wife -- Please!

Roughly the size of a doublewide trailer, the performance space at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre is so small you can stare into the eyes of the actors, size up their varicose veins, and follow the trajectories of their spit with dumbfounding intimacy. As it happens, intimacy -- or the spitting image of it -- is on the boards this month, thanks to Chazz Palminteri's Faithful, a comedy about a menage a trois, featuring a husband, a wife, and a hit man. As marriage comedies go, it's not a deep play -- it's piffle. But it's cozy piffle, just the right size for the HBT.

Does actor-playwright Palminteri provide any new insight about fidelity? Not especially. The 1996 movie version of Faithful -- coproduced by Robert DeNiro and starring Cher -- wasn't a success, but only because the screenplay (also by Palminteri) didn't make up for the difference between the intimate stage and the expansive big screen. HBT's production of the play, however, is hilarious and tartly produced. Leave it to the guy who wrote and starred in the film A Bronx Tale (about a kid's idolization of a small-time hood) and appeared in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (as a gangster with a ken for playwrighting) to concoct a comedy about a woman who discovers that her husband has sent a hit man to kill her on their anniversary.

Funny, huh? Maybe you don't think murder is a laughing matter, but Margaret, the erstwhile trophy wife of a middle-aged businessman, certainly does. Feeling neglected by her husband -- she suspects that he's having an affair and wishes to cheat him out of her life insurance policy -- Margaret swallows a handful of sleeping pills just minutes before Tony, a slightly disheveled killer-for-hire, arrives. Unaware that he's interrupting a suicide attempt, Tony announces that he's been sent by her husband, Jack, who wants to punish her for cheating. "You should've been faithful," he says as he gets ready to tie her to a desk chair and tape her mouth. "You saved my life, and now you're going to kill me?" Margaret asks.

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That's right, barely ten minutes into the action, Palminteri sets up a bleakly funny dramatic situation about impending death -- one that probably would have made existential joker Samuel Beckett wet his pants, had Beckett been given to light comedies. But before we have time to wonder whether murder or suicide will win the day, Margaret manages to get the duct tape off her mouth, the better to blubber that she and hubby Jack have been married for twenty years. Tony, who may not be the soulless wise guy that he first seems, wonders: "How can two people get married in church and take an oath before God and then one of them hires someone to kill the other?" He volunteers that infidelity occurs because there are "too many cocktail waitresses." But Margaret suspects that, in her husband's case, the culprit is his attractive personal assistant.

Set entirely in Margaret's living room, Faithful revolves around Tony and Margaret exploring each other's lives. That is, if you don't count the action of Margaret's hilariously unwieldy propulsion across the stage; her legs taped to the swivel chair, she scoots around as though she were an amputee spider. When Tony announces that Jack hired him, her response is to offer the hit man even more money if he'll kill Jack instead. A self-described man of his word, Tony won't go for this change of plans. But does Margaret have the upper hand or does Tony?

Palminteri's strategy is to keep everyone guessing. For long periods of time, we're not sure who's doing the cheating: Margaret or her husband. It's also possible that Margaret set up this scenario to stage her own death. Margaret and Tony's pas de deux is prolonged because Tony is waiting for a go-ahead call from Jack. According to Tony, Jack wants to be far from the action, but savvy theatergoers will suspect that this setup is actually a ruse to give Margaret and Tony time to get to know each other.

During the downtime Tony phones his therapist, a problem gambler named JoJo. The motif is supposed to provide comic relief but actually turns out to be the least funny element of the play. Twice as entertaining is Margaret's insistence on getting Tony to talk about his profession. When she suspects he isn't really a hit man and calls his bluff by inviting him to murder her and get it over with, Tony insists, "That's not the way I work." When Tony tells her to watch her mouth, Margaret sasses back, "What are you going to do, kill me?"

And so it goes, as Margaret virtually seduces Tony, getting him to let his guard down and untie her and -- no, I won't give it away. Less a play than the dramatic equivalent of a game of Chinese checkers, Faithful unfolds in a contained but slightly unpredictable manner. We know Jack will show up, but we don't know what he'll find. We know Margaret will confront him, but we're not sure that Jack will confess to being unfaithful. We know Tony is falling under Margaret's spell, but we can't tell if he realizes she's a better player than he is.

Do we care about these things? Can Palminteri get all those dramatic marbles to move into place? What's at stake in Faithful is little more than the playwright's gamesmanship. What it lacks in emotional depth, the play makes up for in laughs. Most compelling is Palminteri's creation of a universe in which people put their own interests first -- no matter how absurd or self-defeating. Watching husband and wife outbid each other for his hit man services, Tony exclaims, "The way I feel now, I could kill you both for free."

Happily, no audience member is wounded. Under the direction of Rob LaGamba, the HBT production is neat, crisp, and uninhibited. Designer Arnold Dolan's black-and-white set delineates the tragicomedy of Margaret's life as a suburban accessory -- a statement made all the more effective by costuming her in a cardinal-red dress, the one element of color on the set. The brassy, effervescent Ellen Simmons plays Margaret as though she were a toy that up and learned how to think, a development that gives the play an appealing dollop of angst.

As Jack, who arrives in the second act wearing a double-breasted jacket and black shirt, John Saracco looks more like a Mafioso than Tony, but he doesn't seem to know if he's supposed to be sure of himself. Still, he gives a solid performance. Peter Paul DeLeo inhabits the role of Tony as though it were a suit he hasn't quite grown into. The role provides plenty of room for aloof commentary on Tony (played by Palminteri in the movie), and I wish DeLeo had made fun of him more. After all Palminteri, in all his works, seems to regard these guys as charismatic doofuses. Who else but a character like Tony would point out something as deliriously shallow as the statement "Happiness is something that has to be earned" and expect to be taken seriously?

Faithful.
Written by Chazz Palminteri. Directed by Rob LaGamba. Starring Ellen Simmons, Peter Paul DeLeo, and John Saracco. Through May 24. Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, 1938 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 954-929-5400.

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