Arts » Performing Arts

The Comforts of Blood and Gore

A conversation with playwright Rupert Holmes

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And by the end of the book, the murder is avenged, the murderer is punished or dead, and order has been restored. It's a very satisfying feeling, something we don't often get in real life, as current events show. I also love the traditions of mysteries. Then I love to try and see if I can either break the tradition without trying to turn my back on it, or see if I can stretch it and somewhere come up with a new variation.

Well, that's where I'm kind of fascinated with the work I've seen -- Drood and Accomplice. It strikes me that those works almost couldn't be written by someone who was steeped in theater.

I actually was steeped in theater. Even as a young man, I would sit there and say, Ah well, so much has already been done that's so good. Is there something that someone hasn't tried yet?

When I went to Joe Papp and told him about my notion for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his basic question was, How would you ever do this? And I tried to lay out how I thought it could be done, and when we opened in Central Park, after the very first performance we were sitting in the Delacorte all alone. Joe Papp's there, myself, and the director, Wilford Leach. Joe turned to me and said, Um, it works!

I said, You're just deciding that now? You mean we went six weeks of rehearsal with Betty Buckley and Cleo Laine and George Rose and we got $300,000 worth of sets and now you've decided that the mechanics work? And he said, Well, I just wasn't sure! But the only way we're going to find out was to do it.

Thumbs is really a more traditional mystery comedy. What I realized had not been done a lot in this genre has been that no one has written a Sleuth for women. Most of the thrillers that have been written are for men, and the women in them are usually either the reason for the murder or the victim.

I thought there's such a real gap in the genre. There are male roles in the play, and they're all extremely vital. There are no throwaway roles. However, I do think at the center of the play are two women.

It sounds like you're keeping the fourth wall.

Yeah, I should tell you in advance since you were so adept at sussing out all of that game playing I was doing [in Accomplice]. Unlike a lot of my plays, you needn't go hunting for clues in the playbill.

So how did this thing materialize in Charlotte?

Well, the thing you hope as a playwright is to find somewhere where you can put on a play and entertain the audience and learn about the play. It's as if a play is Alka-Seltzer or Kool-Aid. Until you add water, it doesn't exist. So until you add an audience to a play, there's a lot you don't know about it. So I have tried recently to find a way to open a show out of town without having to really go way, way out of town. And I did Thumbs as a gift to a community theater in New Jersey that does a very, very fine professional job with plays.

And somehow Dan Shoemaker [of Actor's Theatre] found out about it. And he e-mailed me. And I was very, very aware of the production they did of Accomplice, and it was very nicely received by not only yourself but by a number of other writers in the area. So I get this e-mail from Dan saying, What is Thumbs, and we're interested in it. And I said, It's never been performed anywhere. This is just a workshop I'm doing. I'd be glad to share it with you. But I'll tell you what. I'm not going to send you the third act. You can see the third act if you want to do the play. I sent him Acts I and II, and he went nuts. He said, You can't leave me hanging like this. I want to know how this turns out!

Fairly keen interest.

He said, We're doing it. I don't even care if Santa appears in the last act and says, Oh, it was all a dream!'

Has there been any impact on the plays and musicals that you have upcoming on Broadway because of the downturn in the business?

Well, I don't think we've even fully measured yet what it's done to Broadway. I think more shows are going to close that were not planning to close. Kiss Me, Kate looks like it's in trouble. And I'm told that Phantom...PHANTOM I'm talking about now, OK? -- I think it played to 400 people two nights ago.


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