This'll Just Slay You

"TED BUNDY'S CORPSE! EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS INSIDE!" screeched an actual headline from the cover of a recent supermarket scandal rag, trumpeting "the pictures every American wants to see" of that executed serial killer. Even in death, the strangely charismatic Bundy--who'd been portrayed in a TV movie by heartthrob Mark Harmon--remained a star.

Whether or not you want such intense media coverage of heinous criminals, you may be intrigued by Coming Attractions. That's the curiously bland title of playwright Ted Tally's innovative satirical comedy about a misguided young man who tries to achieve fame and fortune by becoming a violent criminal. The biting, sarcastic production, now playing under the direction of Michael Barnard at the 3rd St. Theatre, may offend some with its breezy, show-biz angle on the world of crime. In other words, if you can't buy the premise, you probably won't buy the show.

The story unfolds via a series of quick-paced comic vignettes. Only the deadly protagonist and his ruthless agent (that's right, agent) remain constant, while a hardworking ensemble of three men and three women round out the cast of some fifty supporting characters by means of machine gun-fast costume and wig changes.

Frank Jeffries isn't particularly likable as Lonnie Wayne Burke (doesn't that name just scream bloody murder?), the stupid, cold-blooded "hero" of the piece. But in this show, nobody is very likable. Tally's script mercilessly slashes everyone from newspeople, judges and cops to hostages and victims' families--even Miss America. Yet Jeffries does a credible job as the pathetic, amoral oaf who just wants to be a big media star.

Burke's very first "job" fizzles miserably. As the play opens, he's holding a tiny handful of terrified hostages at gunpoint in a laundromat. Trouble is, his crime goes all but unnoticed by reporters because another crook across town has captured more than fifty hostages. Enter Manny Alter (David Hemphill), a free-lance agent hunting for his next hot client. It isn't long before the two are plotting a sophisticated criminal future for the hapless schnook. First, they settle on a bizarre gimmick to attract the press.

With the help of a child's skeleton costume and a trick-or-treat bag, Burke becomes the dreaded "Halloween Killer"--an indiscriminate fiend who goes door-to-door dispensing death. Finally, the reporters respond as Manny predicted: By the time Burke has wiped out 27 people, news flashes, cover stories, interviews and much ballyhoo surround him. Yet Burke continues a free man, thanks to cheap bail and complex legal maneuvers. One time, anticipating a death sentence but getting probation instead, Burke confronts the judge: "Aren't you going to give me the chair?" The puzzled jurist merely looks at him quizzically and asks, "Then where will I sit?"

In the process of turning into a media darling, Burke lands lucrative contracts for books and movies. And--just like in real life--almost everybody else he's ever come into contact with is planning his own I-knew-him-when story. Treated like a celebrity everywhere, Burke signs autographs for adoring fans and even cuts a record. Done up in a sequin-spangled version of his infamous skeleton suit and backed by a pair of warbling women, Burke sings his heart out on a glitzy TV talk show. "Tell me, Lonnie," croons the oily host (J.J. Giannantonio), "which is the bigger thrill: killing those 27 people, or appearing on my show?"

Manny's greed and Burke's panting-puppy ego drive the duo to plot their biggest caper yet--the murder of Miss America on national television. But Burke--disguised as Miss Wyoming--blows his big chance after he gets a good look at the targeted beauty queen (Shari Snitzer) and is overwhelmed by her loveliness. To Manny's chagrin, Burke even considers giving up his life of crime to wed Miss America. Of course, this scheme also fails dismally--and hilariously.

Among the agile supporting players are local playwright-director Neil Cohen and promising Phoenix newcomer Kim Manning. Mark Naylor does a great standup routine as an Arab comic who tells all-but-untranslatable jokes through an unsmiling, gun-toting interpreter, and Valley stage regular Sherri Hildebrand pops up in a variety of roles ranging from cop to commercial spokeswoman.

Richard Farlow's flashy, serviceable set evokes a gaudy game-show environment--complete with Doors No. 1, 2 and 3 and framed slogans outlined in glittering lights--and actual video cameras and monitors add a feeling of authenticity. Supporting cast members abruptly plunge onto the stage through chutes or roll swiftly down ramps on wheeled furniture, and they often exit by diving suddenly through trap doors in the walls. Yes, it's wild and funny--but is Coming Attractions too absurd? Not at all. If anything, it's too real.

Coming Attractions continues through Saturday, March 25 at the 3rd St. Theatre, Third Street and Moreland. See THEATRE listing in Thrills.

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Robert X. Planet