Past Reviews

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A Scythe of Time
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 24, 2016

Danny Rutigliano, Lesli Margherita, and P.J. Griffith
Photo by Russ Rowland

Edgar Allan Poe's unique brand of macabre absurdism crackles on the page, but doesn't always translate perfectly to human voices and emotions. Take, for example, A Scythe of Time, the expertly executed but chill-free entry from Alan Harris and Mark Alan Swanson for the New York Musical Festival. It combines the two Poe stories "A Predicament" and "How to Write a Blackwood Article" by linking them at their point of commonality, a woman named Psyche Zenobia, but doesn't know how to make one good horror tale come from the union.

Psyche, the editor of a fashion magazine called The Bluebatch in Victorian-era London, is watching her periodical competition drop dead around her—literally. The owner of a local newspaper, Blackwood, has begun offering a 50-guinea commission to anyone who can write a truly compelling account of dying, which is naturally only possible if they see the process all the way through. As the other publications' ranks of contributors thin in the resulting wave of suicides, Blackwood comes closer to fulfilling his greatest dream: ultimate domination of the world's news.

In our age of tentacular multinational media conglomerates, this falls rather short of the existential creepfest threshold still met by other Poe works such as "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Raven." And the unsettling atmosphere is not aided by Psyche's getting wrapped up in the literary moneymaking opportunity by planning to take herself to the brink of death and pull back just in time—with the basic results you can imagine, if not likely not the specifics (unless you've read "A Predicament"). Suffice it to say, those 50 guineas won't stand in the way of Psyche and her devoted servant, Pompey, getting their revenge on Blackwood by seeing that he writes the most electrifying "Blackwood article" of all.

Librettist Harris, composer-lyricist Swanson, and director David Alpert are clearly going for a towering Grand Guignol vibe, in both the writing and the production. Menacing choruses and shrieky ceiling splitting from the company's higher sopranos and tenors, are intended to (and, within limits, do) convey the anguish of a depressed, soul-stifled populace; they very much sound (and function) along the likes of the crazed between-scene interludes in Sweeney Todd. And the fuller numbers, which both set the stage of the challenge and follow the successes and failures of those who attempt it, are haunting but lovely as they outline the boundaries of this prison-like world.

The lack of any real stakes or even a simulacrum of terror, however, make achieving a lasting impact impossible. Psyche's side of the narrative is pretty silly and never grows less so; though Lesli Margherita (Matilda, Dames at Sea) is spectacular in the part, beautifully fusing broad and businesswoman on the front lines of professional anguish, and a vibrant Danny Rutigliano is every bit her match as Pompey, neither exactly anchors the evening in wrenching drama. What they do instead is upend what tone the darker scenes establish, which is not what such a patently far-fetched story as this one needs.

Once Alpert and the writers let you linger too long on the plot, you realize that it doesn't make a lick of sense (a misstep Poe was gifted at skirting but ultimately avoiding), and the show is not able to recover from that. It's been given a superlative production, with shadowy sets (by Starlet Jacobs) and costumes (Lindsay McWilliams), sepia-toned picture-postcard projections (Dan Scully), brooding lighting (Nick Solyom), and seeming pounds of white face makeup and caked-on black eye shadow (uncredited) that emphasize the burned-out environment; and the rest of the cast, which includes P.J. Griffith as Blackwood and Matt Dengler as his dangerously sympathetic brother-assistant, is solid. But you're never really immersed in the action.

Some of this could be mitigated in another production; NYMF's notoriously variable amplification rendered huge chunks of the big ensemble numbers unintelligible at the performance I attended, and gentle rewrites to keep the more skyrocketing cadenzas out of the counterpoints, where they too frequently clash with the main lyrical lines, would also help. But there's at once too little and too much going on in A Scythe of Time; right now, it's neither a good comedy nor a good scare, but somewhere in between, and those two halves of its nature simply do not want to coexist. It's a fair amount of fun (and, at 90 minutes, the longest it can realistically be), especially with Margherita and Rutigliano at the helm, but as a complete musical play, Harris and Swanson have yet to fully convince us that death is this much of a laughing matter.

A Scythe of Time
The New York Musical Festival occupies 7 venues in Midtown Manhattan. The New York Musical Festival Box Office and audience services Is located at 42West NY, 510 West 42nd St between 10th & 11th Avenues
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