The Scorpion: Sandman Mystery Theatre 17-20. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
By now, we’ve seen enough performances in this Theatre to discern that, just as there are four Acts to each play, there are three elements or strands to each drama.
The first, and simplest, is the drama provoked by the villain, who lends his or her soubriquet to the title of the play: a creature of passions and anger, calculation and brutality, a figure driven to murder and more by forces that compel them in their heinous acts.
The second is the milieu, the setting: that part of the world of 1938 that exists beneath the smooth, sophisticated, jazz-inflected surface of New York Society, the underbelly that people wish to keep hidden.
And the last is the changing relationship between our three principal characters, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and the Sandman, whose name is above the proscenium arch of the Mystery Theatre yet who, in so many ways, is the least of this trio.
Of course, these elements do not stand alone. They interlace, sometimes combining, at others opposing. The first is done by the final Act, an event that is then filed away as a memory with which to dispense, a mere ghost to the next play. And the second is also a passing experience, as the eye of the playwright restlessly seeks another depth in which to sink.
But each story has consequences for our trio of players. The Scorpion leads us to such a moment, that will have enormous effect upon our principals.
The opening Act swiftly and economically sets everything up: we begin with Wesley and Dian enjoying a dinner date, literally only a day or so after The Vamp, putting that memory to bed and raising the expectation of a re-run of their, ah, encounter. Wes, who is still suffering from the wound he receives, skilfully delays this encounter by palming off tickets to a concert by Western star Buster Calhoun. This will utterly delight DA Larry Belmont as well as aiding Wes to avoid both the concert and the hustle it’s designed to promote, seeking fundraisers for an exploitive oil venture in a Europe staring at a near future War.
So Larry has a whale of a time with what’s clearly a pretty cheap, sentimental cowboy singer, packing the worst of country into one evening. He meets the Mayor (who, though not named, is the real-life and well-known Fiorella LaGuardia) as well as a bunch of standoffish and sneeringly condescending Directors of the Oil Enterprise, who rudely take the first opportunity to get out of something they obviously regards as beneath them.
Dian and Larry also meet the rather more open-handed and approachable Cutlers, Managing Director Stephen and his business-like, determined daughter, Cassandra (an unfortunately significant name) and their hotshot,thrusting advertising executive, Terry Stetson.
Meanwhile Director 1, Dechert, goes home with his young, blonde, plump mistress, to start his own brand of sex games with her, involving pretending she is his daughter, and spanking her, a process interrupted by his sudden and violent death, courtesy of a shadowy figure who, unseen by the two ‘lovers’, steps into the room and gives Dechert a single slash on the back with a whip.
This brings in the Police, which means Burke, and also Hubert Klein, who will find himself adopted as a willing ally by the Sandman during this play (a role he relishes because of his own fascination with the pulp magazines and their crime-fighters, like ‘Dickie Bones’, a comparison that the Sandman finds uncomfortably pricking to his self-image).
But commerce continues, and Wesley, now that there is something for his alter ego to investigate, is more willing to be wooed towards investment. And Dian is willing to accompany him, not out of her own thirst for investigation, but just for Wesley’s ever-warming company.
Then, as the Sandman investigates one crime scene, finding the stamped image of a scorpion on the building, we go home with Director 2, Rummel, a sadistic, racist martinet, free with a short whip on his hispanic manservant, until he receives a lash himself. From a big, broad man with a hatred for the rich, the affected, the ‘upper class’. He wears cowboy boots, a bolo tie, and a black bandana with eye holes. He is the Scorpion.
For once, the identity of the villain is not difficult to discern. Though Buster Calhoun is dangled as an obvious suspect, he’s equally obviously a red herring, and there’s only one other person in the story who comes from Out West, and who wears bolo ties anyway, and that’s Terry, the hustler. Hustling the Company as a great investment for Wesley Dodds, hustling Cassandra Cutler into a date.
If nothing else, his extreme fury when Dodds withdraws from the proposed investment (threatening the entire deal), followed by the Scorpion’s attack on Wesley, betrays Mr Stetson immediately.
The surname, of Stetson, is too much to be real and when Terry is unmasked in the final act by Cassandra – who is too confident of herself whilst simultaneously hurt by Terry’s betrayal of her, and who winds up shot with her own gun – and then unmasks himself to Director 3, Lane, an effete homosexual, the name is proven false.
Terry the Scorpion is actually Terry Pritchard, son of a Texas farmer whose lands were bought out for oil, for a fair, even good price, but who was destroyed by his wealth, or rather the refusal of the wealthy to accept him as an equal, and who Terry is determined to destroy.
What has to be admired is that Seagle as scripter makes absolutely no overt correlation between Wesley’s inner contempt and disgust at his fellow businessmen and Terry’s overt rage against them. Absent their methods, these two have a great deal in common.
I’d like to take a moment here to praise Messrs Wagner, Seagle and Davis for a superbly mounted performance, showing the value of a consistent production team. Davis, in particular, cements himself as the Mystery Theatre artist, from whom all others, no matter their qualities, are but lapses. He’s not cinematic, nor dynamic, in any sense that a comic book artist is expected to be. Instead, his people are real, unidealised, their feet standing on the ground.
His art may appear sketchy, and in some places it borders upon the cartoonish – Terry’s short blond hair is composed of a few scribbles and a line to represent the hairline – and it is determinedly two-dimensional, in the sense that there is little sense of depth in any panel, but allied to his stunning colouring, the art has weight. Disbelief need not be suspended, for each and every moment takes on an enviable solidity that has no need to draw attention to itself.
And it is Davis who brings this story to a conclusion that, in terms of artistic subtlety, may be his greatest moment on this series.
For this story is, as I said above, only an episode in the development of the relationship between Dian, Wesley and the Sandman.
As I stated, the story begins in the very immediate aftermath of The Vamp, with Wes and Dian’s first sexual connection: not full intercourse, because of Wes’s very fresh gunshot wound, but in cunnilingus performed on Dian. Now, we have it on the lady’s own coded authority, in The Face, that she is no longer a virgin, and it’s probably not the first time she’s had that kind of devotion, and she’s open without being vulgar about it to both a repetition and a return of the favour.
But there’s a reason why this isn’t happening as soon as it might, that’s got nothing to do with the moralities of 1938 (both public and private), and it’s more than just the additional recovery time Wesley needs for his inconvenient wound. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s his preoccupation with being the Sandman, and the hours that need to be devoted to pursuing the object of his latest dream are precisely those during which the reaching of a greater accord with Dian would best be pursued.
Worse though, Wesley struggles within himself for the courage to confess his dual identity to his love. Especially when he is seriously ill after being struck by the Scorpion’s whip, he still creates fantastic covers involving rich man maladies, delicate stomachs and a surfeit of oysters, rather than being honest.
And Dian, for once, is not curious about the latest serial killer, finding Wesley too much in her eyes for most of the story. Only when she belatedly realises how close it comes to Wesley, and thus herself, does Dian begin to investigate in anything like her usual manner.
And that’s what brings about the ending. The Sandman sets a trap that fails. The Scorpion is wounded, leading to his final attempt to strike. Burke, poisoned by the Scorpion, given the antidote by the Sandman, pursues hotly, but is forced to accept Dian’s interference and aid. Everything converges on Lane’s flat where the Sandman subdues the Scorpion, the Scorpion suffers a stroke, Lane’s mind collapses into memories of childhood abuse by his father, and Burke and Dian pick up the pieces.
The Sandman has left his usual poem, on paper folded into the shape of a scorpion. Burke is his usual, scornful self, deriding the device but unable to recall the name of the art, except that the Sandman always does this. Offstage, in his narration of this play, Wesley recounts his decision to come clean with Dian, to risk all on telling her.
Onstage, Davis draws three panels, closing in on Dian’s face. Her eyes are on the unfolded paper, fixed and silent. As Wesley’s voice tails off in a promise now empty, Dian speaks, her eyes wide, turned to Burke. “Origami,” she says. “It’s called origami.” And her face is that of someone who has reached an unwelcome, numbing conclusion about something she would rather not have known in this manner.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a series of sketches.
Break a leg.