I f violence against presidents is a kind of fringe religion in our country’s history, as Yale Repertory’s current production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins (1990) argues, then John Wilkes Booth is its patron saint. Played with swagger, panache and only a tinge of desperation by Robert Lenzi, Booth leads the play, gathering and inspiring a group of misfits, encouraging them to pull their triggers and annihilate their revered targets.
While using his dark influence to inspire Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), Booth insists that “when you kill a president, it isn’t murder. Murder is a tawdry little crime; it’s born of greed, or lust, or liquor… But when a president gets killed, when Julius Caesar got killed—he was assassinated.” Lenzi savors the last word like a delicacy. He’s a debonair devil on the killers’ collective shoulder, as if they need one. Assassination, as pursued by the nine eccentrics on stage, is a kind of golden ticket—a distinctly American shortcut to make your mark, rocket to the top, find fame or get the girl.
It’s a darkly funny, glitzy spectacle that’s at its best when it revels in the gunmen’s peccadilloes and personalities. Richard Henry is a grubby delight as Samuel Byck (“I’m going to try to kill Dick Nixon,” he bellows good-naturedly), dressed in a dingy Santa suit and tossing cold hamburgers across the stage.
Byck’s foil, the threadbare, foppish and self-promoting Charles Guiteau, who shot President Garfield, is played by Stephen Derosa. He prances around, waving his underappreciated (and apparently plagiarized) theological manuscript The Truth with the wide eyes of someone who’s beginning to realize their big break might not be the one they had imagined.
Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme—played by a ditzy Julia Murney and a cracked Lauren Molina—are a comedic duo with no straight man, and their scenes together are just one form of mania bouncing off another, with the occasional accidental gunshot thrown in for good measure.
For all of its strange energy, toe-tapping tunes and wicked humor, Assassins isn’t a totally coherent vision of the lone wolf on the periphery of American politics. The assassins or would-be assassins who lack the charisma of their fellows, like the inward, bespectacled John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) or Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), who tried to kill FDR in part because of a pain in his own stomach, find the bombastic script working against them, while a group of “bystanders” meant to capture the American people as a whole are not nearly as compelling as the gunmen they’re reacting to.
Although it’s been nearly 30 years since it was first performed, Assassins, which has won a handful of Tonys and stirred up a lot of fervor, still feels timely. Guiteau, brandishing his pistol, points it straight into the audience early on and intones, “When you’ve got a gun, everybody pays attention.” He’s right. Staring down the barrel, even a toy barrel, even in a theater, is an uneasy sensation. You could hear a pin drop.
This production, directed by James Bundy, is performed in front of a wall of massive light bulbs, which look like something you might shoot out to win a prize at a fair, and makes use of large, pixelated televisions to offer candid close-ups of the actors at particularly emotional moments.
While the script seems interested in denouncing its main players—understandably, they deserve excoriation—none of its attempts to rebut their feverish logic or outsized personalities are successful, and the double casting of a character who transforms mid-show—and crosses ideological lines as he does so—tips the musical’s moral balance toward the assassins. Their shared thesis—that perhaps the only person more patriotic than the president is the person who kills him—goes basically unchecked, which would be an appealing upset if there weren’t so many unsuccessful attempts to refute it.
It’s great, sparkling fun, thanks in large part to Yale Rep’s interpretation of the source material, but like the gunmen themselves, there’s something broken at its core.
Presented by Yale Rep at the University Theatre – 222 York St, New Haven (map)
Showtimes through April 8
Written by Sorrel Westbrook. Photographed by Carol Rosegg for Yale Repertory Theatre.