Sandman Mystery Theatre 33-36. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plotter), Steven T. Seagle (scripter), Warren Pleece (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
There’s an indefinable air of ‘back to business’ about the next production, or rather back to ‘business as usual’. The Python – a soubriquet put forward, for once, by Hubert Klein – is a serial-killer, whose spree starts with a major New York financial figure, the corrupt, greedy, immoral and deeply unpleasant Emmett Beedle, who dies from a badly-crushed windpipe.
That’s enough for the Police to be put on priority, with Tony Burke (absent from The Hourman) leading an investigation that gets incredibly complicated when the second victim turns out to be a black cleaning woman, and the third a seedy drunk in a bar.
Needless to say, the Sandman is also in hot pursuit of a Bible-spouting killer who turns out to be hiding in plain sight, and once again he turns up just in time to save Burke from the killer’s hands. Though this time he’s sensible enough to tie the wop cop up with his own handcuffs to listen to the confession.
The killer, and the investigation, are routine things, almost procedural for the Mystery Theatre, enlivened by the inimitable Burke, still displaying all the worst hard-boiled traits of the pulp Thirties/Forties cop: the cleaning lady’s son has to be the killer and Burke’s unfiltered racial epithets are unrestricted as he intends to send the kid to the rockpile, even if he’s as innocent as Jesus. Only by seeing Burke as a product of his times can we stand to have him around.
But the play’s the thing and again the Mystery is but a backcloth for what Wagner and Seagle are about, which is the ongoing relationship of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, a dance that has been playing out before our eyes since the first performance, but which has been the very centre of our perception since The Scorpion.
Because those looks that Guy Davis put on her face in The Hourman were a true indication that Wesley is blindly wrong to think that his love has only the self-same concerns as does he.
It’s subtly foreshadowed in the opening scene, as Wes and Dian leave a cinema after watching a Cagney movie: Dian’s eager to talk and Wes starts praising the film, but she’s talking about the newsreel, about the increasing threat of the Nazis in Europe. Then up pops Carol from The Vamp, with her… friend Nancy, chatting enthusiastically with Dian about the commercial for physical fitness maven, Jake Bonoir, whilst Wes stands aside, silent. Dian’s interested in improving her health, but Wes is contrary: yoga for him, not P.E.
And it’s like that at every turn. Dian goes with Carol, anxious to improve her physique, especially around her full hips, which the bi-sexual Carol sees as being very alright as it is. As does Wesley, or so we assume, but it’s Carol who has to say this to Dian. Dian talks about her exercise sessions, about the effect their having, how exhausting they are, but Wesley is not listening. All he can see, all he can think about, is the Sandman’s investigation, and with every unconscious slight, Dian feels it more.
The PE sessions are all part of the Bonoir method, which Bonoir has established out on the West Coast and is trying to bring to the East. It’s a tip of the head to the times, for Physical Fitness was a fad in the pre-superhero days, an element in the culture that assisted in preparing the way for physically perfect specimens in tight costumes, and Bonoir’s name is a tip of the hat to the most successful exponent of such programmes, Bernarr McFadden, the man behind Charles Atlas, ‘The World’s Most Perfect Man’.
It’s not difficult to see that Bonoir will turn out to be the Python: after all, we are looking for someone with great physical strength, strong enough to crush necks, but Klein’s fanciful insistence on suggesting that the effect required the crushing ability of an actual python derails the investigation by turning it towards another late Thirties fad, that of the Big Game Hunter.
Jungle John Barrows has an animal act that used to have a python. He’s a fake, a fraud on every level, except for one amusing sequence when the Sandman tries to put him under but the drunk-to-hell Barrows is more than agile enough to avoid capture. But all he is is a poor red herring, local colour, a means to extend the investigation long enough to make the play run the statutory four Acts.
Because Bonoir may be the villain, but he’s never onstage for any length of time as himself: dropping in to end of sessions to promote his ‘Way’ to the paying customers, plugging his Weekend Camp, that Carol persuades an unconvinced Dian into attending without telling her it’s also nudist. Until the confrontation scene, we only see Bonoir when he’s killing, to an accompaniment of strident Bible-talk, and his anonymity isn’t enough to keep the action going long enough for Wesley’s self-absorption to finally get under Dian’s skin.
So the Barrows sequence keeps the wheels spinning. Wesley narrates to himself, it being his turn to guide the story, oblivious to Dian’s growing dissatisfaction. Even when he tries to do something for the woman he loves, he gets it wrong: having ‘gone out’ when Dian was expected round, he comes home late to find her in the Sandman’s lair, patiently waiting for him, but fast asleep. So he covers her, rather than disturb her, and goes upstairs, putting himself into a warm, comfortable bed and leaving her in a hard chair…
Things start to build up. The issue of the Nazis is becoming a subject of concern to many: Burke doesn’t care, but Klein is emotionally rocked by news that relatives have suffered at Kristallnacht. Etta is settled in and enjoying her father’s company (even as Humphries works around Master Dodds’ secret), but Larry Belmont is as deep in the Python case as Burke, and even he is not there for Dian.
Carol makes a pass, misreading signals, though the two woman are entirely level-headed and civilised about the mistake, and the discovery about Bonoir being taken in whilst she’s away is the final catalyst for an abrupt decision.
Late in Act 3, Dian receives a letter from her old college friend Anne, or Lady Annabel Forbes-Whitten, as she now is in England. Annabel’s life may be unimaginably different (and reading between the lines decidedly alien) but she is secure in her happiness with the man she loves, and it is very much the case that Dian is neither. She isn’t secure in that tiny, constricted life she has with the pre-occupied Wes, nor in her ignorance of the wider world beyond, a world under clouds dark and growing darker.
And abruptly she leaves. An extended visit to England, no return ticket. Only a letter to Wesley that he receives when he is ready to pay to her the genuine attention he should have done all along though Dian specifically absolves him of blame for her departure.
It’s a finale that only whets the audience’s desire to know more, but before we leave our review of this performance, a couple of things must be mentioned: that Etta is allowed a little more time in support, expressing her admiration for Master Dodds’ firmness of purpose and mentioning off-handedly friends she has made who have influenced her thinking: and that after losing his microphone in Burke’s office, Wesley dresses up as a foreign janitor to eavesdrop whilst ‘cleaning’ Burke’s office.
But we cannot leave without making proper mention of our guest set-designer, Warren Pleece, who provides our first significantly different vision of the Mystery Theatre since R. G. Taylor two years earlier. Like John Watkiss, Pleece is a British artist, one of a pair of brothers who started in fandom when I was getting involved there (though I never knowingly met either).
Like Taylor, Pleece makes no attempt to duplicate Davis’ command of the Thirties milieu, preferring to use a rough, almost blocky style that is deliberately 2D, and which is heavy on atmosphere rather than detail. David Hornung uses a narrower colour palette, darkening most scenes and allowing the black-and-white film trailer that makes up page 1 to dictate the overall look of the play. I don’t wish to be unfair to him when most of the problem is that he simply isn’t Guy Davis, but I find his work drab and dull, with a deliberately heavy style that leadens the whole work.
As for the Python himself, whilst the links between his victims are eventually spelled out, and are entirely logical, if diverse, we are left to construct for ourselves his motives, or rather the madness of his motives, which are suggested as having a pyscho-sexual underpinning that reverses the incestuous Albert-Celia Goldman relationship in The Tarantula. The shape is delivered, the Bible-obsession is tied in, yet in his madness as in his exterior life, Jake Bonoir never exists as more that an outline.
It’s a sad assessment on which to end the third year of Sandman Mystery Theatre, though one failure in nine productions is still a good standard. But though this was not known at the time, we were halfway through the life of our dramatic entertainment. The end was nearer than the beginning, now.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a touring edition of Sandman Midnight Theatre.
Break a leg.