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A CurtainUp Review
Brutal Imagination
Susan Smith has invented me because
Nobody else in town will do what
She needs me to do. I mean: jump in an idling car
And drive off with two sad and
Frightened kids in the back.
Like a bad lover, she has given me a poisoned heart.
It pounds both our ribs, black, angry, nothing
but business

--- Mr. Zero ("My Heart")
Sally Murphy &  Joe Horton
Sally Murphy & Joe Horton
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
This is the second time in two years that the story of Susan Smith has found its way to an Off-Broadway stage. Two years ago the Adobe Theatre Company's attempt at a dark comedy turned into a docudrama called Down the Drain. Now the Vineyard Theatre is presenting yet another variation on this grim true crime tale, Brutal Imagination. The aim in this case is to translate the facts into an artistic blend of drama, poetry and music.

To backtrack a bit. Who is Susan Smith? What is her story all about? In case the current much publicized trial of a Texas woman who killed her five children hasn't nudged Smith's name back into your consciousness, she catapulted her small Southern town into the national spotlight in 1994. After nine days of investigation, Smith's claim that the black man she accused of killing her two small children was exposed as a figment of her troubled imagination.

The Smith case inspired Cornelius Eady to write a cycle of poems giving a voice to this nonexistent black man, and thus all the men easily associated with crimes by virtue of their race. It is the published book of these poems, also titled Brutal Imagination, that is the basis of the just opened play. While Mr. Eady is on familiar ground with Diedre Murray to provide the musical accompaniment to his words and Diane Paulus to direct, he and his collaborators have created something that is, unfortunately, more artsy than artistic. Its inherent drama notwithstanding, Brutal Imagination feels far longer than its seventy-five minute length and, whatever the merits of the original poems, this is a case of a page-to-stage translation that does not work especially well. The attempt to merge a true crime drama with an abstract Everyman story of racial stereotyping is interesting but it fails to engage the audience on a visceral level.

Thanks to the powerful presence of Joe Morton, the conceit of this manufactured Everyman, metaphorically named Mr. Zero, does work occasionally. Morton, whom Les Gutman singled out for his commanding portrayal of Vincentio in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Measure for Measure, manages to invest this basically underwritten character with considerable humor and feeling

His co-star, Sally Murphy, is fatally hobbled by the lack of any build-up of her relationship to her children, as well as by the awkward structure and direction that has her intermittently recite her own story and act it out. At one point she is also forced to break the fourth wall and scramble up and down the aisles handing out copies of "wanted" fliers spawned by her testimony.

The two actors do provide some strong moments of interaction. All of these are silent and not particularly indebted to the text.

Having seen and admired the previous Eady-Murray-Paulus collaboration, Running Man, I looked forward to a play enriched by music. But this aspect of Brutal Imagination also falls short of expectation. The four musicians in this piece are hidden out of sight. They perform well but their music is strictly incidental and not particularly distinguished.

The staging supports the action quite adequately. Kevin Adams' glaring lights —lots of overhead bulbs and two long neon tubes overarch the entire theater— are an effective if rather obvious symbol of Smith's fabrication unraveling under the penetrating rays of the investigation. Mark Wendland's set starts as a wide expanse of stage with the focus on an assemblage of paraphernalia that evokes the theme of missing children and also serves as the car in which they were abducted by the alleged gunman. Gradually this heap of props turns into as big a mess as Smith's story and mental condition.

Although Ms. Paulus is listed as co-conceiver of this adaptation of Mr. Eady's poems, the fragmentary nature of the material seems to have driven her to directorial gimmicks atypical to her work (like those passed-around "wanted" fliers). I hope the rumor of a Vineyard production of Swimming With Water Melons (one of the highlights of the Summer 2001 Berkshire season) materializes so that New York audiences will have a chance to see another work co-conceived by Paulus — also a play with music and based on real events, but thoroughly satisfying on all counts.

Down the Drain, another play about Susan Smith
Measure For Measure, in which Joe Morton played Vincentio
Running Man, a Publitzer-Prize finalist by the same creative team
Swimming With Water Melons and Donkey Show, directorial triumphs for Ms. Paulus.
The paperback edition of the poems that lead to this play, available at our book store

Written by Cornelius Eady and Deidre Murray
Directed by Diane Paulus
Cast: Joe Morton and Sally Murphy
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Brett Jarvis
Musicians: Diana Herold, Cliff Korman, Jim Nolet, Marvin Sewell
Running Time: 75 minutes without intermission
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. (Park Av S./Irving Place), 212/353-3366
From 12/19/01; opening, 1/09/02
Tues-Friday @ 8pm; Saturdays @ 5 and 9pm; Sundays @3pm--$15-$45. Tuesday - Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 5PM and 9PM; Sunday at 3PM

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/08/02 performance
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