Theatre Nights: The City


Sandman Mystery Theatre 61-64. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The departure of Matt Wagner was meant to open up a new era for the Mystery Theatre. Steven T Seagle was full of ideas, not least that the hitherto rigid four-Act format of the series might be varied, suggesting three-Act and five-Act plays would now start to appear. And he delivered a taster of what might be in his first solo effort, The City, by adopting a Rashomon approach that interlaced a series of contemporaneous stories, each seen through the eyes of a different cast member, whose interactions repeat and reflect from differing viewpoints across the four Acts.
The crime of this story is a simple one, solved by the sandman in a single Act. A protection racket enforcer bullies two Italian barbers, father and son, one of whom cuts his throat. As he is the third they have disposed of, they desperately need to dispose of the bodies. They do this by dragging them into an abandoned warehouse and setting light to it, but the fire is put out before the bodies are too badly burned.
Because a witness has seen a man dragging the bodies, the two Prima’s are put into a line-up at the Police Station. The witness picks both out but cannot distinguish between them, until the son confesses, trying to exonerate his father. But the Sandman intervenes that night, forcing the father to confess: the throats were cut by a left-handed person and his son is right handed. Wesley returns home to find Dian in his laboratory: the two go to bed and make love for the first time since the abortion.
That’s Wesley’s day (and narrative). It begins with Dian watching him in bed as he sleeps. She rushes off after breakfast, which Wesley has made himself since Humphries has, reluctantly, asked for personal time off. Burke is at the line-up, though he’s not handling the Prima’s case: his own line-up is next.
But in the second Act we see the day from Dian’s perspective (and narrative). It begins with her thoughts as Wesley sleeps, but she then takes a phone call from a contact who she hopes can advance her literary ambitions. He has seen the latest chapters arrive from the mysterious recluse, Gerald Leavy. But this tme there is a clue as to the elegant Leavy’s wherabouts, the return address of what proves to be a very seedy Staten Island private hotel. Dian heads out to the Island to try to find him.
The hotel is indeed seedy, and the Leavy who lives there is a drunken, illiterate brute obsessed with his money. A less likely writer could hardly be found, and cetainly not someone capable of the work of a true stylist. With the aid of another writer at the hotel, Richard Manten, a socialist essayist, equally sceptical that ‘Leavy’ could possibly be Leavy, Miss Belmont investigates, even to the extent of borrowing Wesley’s old Sandman gas-mask and a spare gas-gun.
The mystery is not difficult to divine once Dian brings the gas gun rather wildly into play. The real Leavy lives in a nearby sanatorium, no longer able to walk due to his opium addiction. The drunken brue of the hotel is merely a front to maintain his privacy. Behind the gas-mask, Dian gets to talk literature for hours. She has only just returned Wesley’s things when he returns from his mission.
The Third Act is devoted to Humphries’ day. Despite the freedom and respect Wesley Dodds presses on him, Leslie Humphries is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman, always putting his master’s needs first. But on this occasion he is forced, reluctantly, to ask for a day to deal with personal matters, because these relate to his daughter, Ella.
We have already seen a be-wigged young woman performing for stag films, but being dragged out by a Polish lover who wants her covered. Now Humphries is visited by one of his colleagues who, having cleared up his master’s latest stag film, has taken a clip of the film from which Humphries is horrified to recognise Ella. She is supposed to be in Canada, visiting relatives.
Weak though he is, and in many ways unworldly, Humphries begins a search in the New York porn industry for Ella, determined upon rescuing her from what vile forces have forced her into this life. In the end, he locates her, and brings her back to the mansion, but the true story is very different. Ella is acting willingly, to raise money for the communist cause, of which she is a passionate convert: the Polish man was, indeed, her lover.
Nevertheless, she consents to go back to the Dodds mansion with her worried father, unrepentant of her beliefs yet willing to accept his parental direction to the extent of seeking a more ‘respectable’ course in life. Humphries is, for the moment, content. Ella, on the other hand, is determined to kick against the traces: what she has done is deemed to be whorish, whereas Miss Belmont sleeps openly with Master Dodds. An interesting point.
These three stories surround each other, their common moments building into a more comprehensive whole. The Fourth Act, which is dedicated to Lieutenant Burke, is something of an interloper. Burke’s participation in the stories of the Sandman, Dian and Humphries has been largely peripheral: he has taken a call from Humphries when the latter was trying to report the making of films and promised to pass it on to Vice (and we see in Burke’s Act that he does make a point of pressing the case). But his concern is with an unrelated case, the death of a young man, dropped from the Staten Island funfair big-dipper for failing to pay debts.
It’s our first chance to look under Burke’s skin, to understand something of his sourness, with life and with himself. Burke only has the Law: he sees himself unfit for decent people.
But in between Acts, Weaver has re-introduced him to Doris, a nice looking woman in her late thirties who has always liked Tony Burke. The Lieutenant is beginning to see that there may be a choice for him where before there has not only been no choices, but he has proudly espoused his life as being entirely fit and right for him.
Even the case of the murdered boy is an expression of his nascent need to want to be seen as worthy in Dorus’s eyes. The lad may have been killed outside Manhatten, but he’s a cousin of Doris’s, and that makes him family. With O’Grady in tow, Burke heads off precinct, relying on the custom that allows him to dip into another station’s work.
Burke’s promised a result to Doris, and in pursuit of this, knowing that her family relationship makes her a target to the two killers, he asks her and her sister to pose as targets at Coney Island. Though scared, Doris trusts in Tony to protect them. And Tony Burke is as good as his word: though Weaver takes a flesh wound, Burke corners the killers and, happily, returns fire, killing both without a moment of remorse.
It makes him more of a hero with Doris. Yet Burke takes only satisfaction at having ended the threat of two vicious men, any displays none of the vicious pleasure we would usually expect from his coarseness. He’s becoming concious of the desire to rise above what he’s been. He asks to start seeing Doris, and she happily obliges. A happy ending.
But not for Seagle. The City was the only experiment he would be able to write, and though he got his wish to write a non-four-Act story, it came in circumstances that no-one would have wished. Six months after the end of The City, Sandman Mystery Theatre would ring down its curtain for the last time.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Goblin.
Break a leg.