The Comforts of Blood and Gore

Perry Tannenbaum (Creative Loafing)

Back in 1985, Rupert Holmes had the audacity to write a Broadway musical that had no fewer than eight possible endings for his cast to memorize. Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood wound up capturing five Tony Awards for Holmes, including individual triumphs in the Best Book and Best Score categories — an unprecedented double.

Holmes has been prolific and successful in both the theater and music realms. Two years ago, Actor's Theatre staged the playwright's Accomplice in Charlotte to great acclaim after the thriller had already won the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award. The Burns & Allen Estate gave Holmes its approval — and access to unpublished documents — in preparation for Say Goodnight, Gracie, scheduled for a Broadway opening in March 2002.

Meanwhile, the composer's songs have been sung by Barbara Streisand on multi-platinum albums, by cartoon critters in Shrek, and by Britney Spears, for crissake. Holmes's soundtrack for A Star Is Born won a Grammy Award. Toss in some prime work in TV. He wrote the Emmy Award-winning Remember WENN for AMC.

This week, Holmes's newest play, Thumbs, gets a "World Preview" opening at Spirit Square. Holmes is in town to see how well his script works on Charlotte's theater audience.

We were able to catch Holmes a couple of weeks ago at his New York office and chat with him about the mad swirl of his career, about Thumbs, and about the medicinal effect of mystery thrillers.

Creative Loafing: Looking over your press bio, I guess lazy and laid-back aren't proper descriptions for Rupert Holmes.

Rupert Holmes: People ask me my hobby, and I say it's sleeping — and I've really neglected my hobby. I work until about four or five in the morning, and I get up about eight or nine. Then they say, "Oh, you're one of those people who doesn't need eight hours of sleep." And I say, "I need eight hours of sleep. I just can't afford it." I don't know. I've always wanted to do lots of different things. Somehow, I never got it into my head that I had to necessarily choose. It's an old habit from my early days in the record business. I found the most productive sentence I could say to people was, "Yes!"

Creative Loafing: All the different things you do must presuppose that you have an omnivorous interest in things — such as mysteries.

Rupert Holmes: I do. I'm a wealth of information that is of no use to anyone. If you need to know the entire cast of the first season of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, I'm the man to turn to. If it's information that is not particularly vital to anyone's daily life, my brain soaks it up and retains it for decades.

Creative Loafing: So were you absorbed by reading and consuming mysteries at one point?

Rupert Holmes: Yeah. My love affair with mysteries goes back to when I was like 10 or 11. Because I had to wear glasses when I was eight. This was in the 50s, when if you wore glasses, about 90 percent of your options in life were automatically ruled out for you. So I kind of felt very forlorn, because I was obviously not going to be Flash Gordon or anybody like that. Suddenly I discovered there were these things called mysteries where the hero sometimes wore glasses. Ellery Queen, for example, who was on TV at that time. And he wore glasses!

I loved reading mysteries because it's as if someone has glued a magnet on the inside back cover of the book. If it gets a little slow, you still pull through the book because there's that reward at the end where you find out "whodunnit." Kind of like why you might work your way through a lime Tootsie Pop knowing eventually there is a chocolate center that I'm going to get to.

Despite the fact that they seem to involve violence and blood, mysteries are actually very reassuring, especially in our unstable times. You have this universe where, suddenly, the social order has been thrown completely into chaos. My favorite line in Thumbs is baby simple: "You're not supposed to kill people."

We count on people behaving the way they should behave. We count on the fact that life, being hard enough to get through as it is, is not going to be shortened by some stupid act. And into this terrible chaos comes the great detective, who sometimes takes the form of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot and sometimes takes the form of someone quite obscenely innocuous, like Miss Marple or Father Brown. Somehow they see the same information that we see, and they're able to perceive something that we can't get.

And by the end of the book, the murder is avenged, the murderer is punished or dead, and order has been restored. It's a very satisfying feeling, something we don't often get in real life, as current events show. I also love the traditions of mysteries. Then I love to try and see if I can either break the tradition without trying to turn my back on it, or see if I can stretch it and somewhere come up with a new variation.

Creative Loafing: Well, that's where I'm kind of fascinated with the work I've seen — Drood and Accomplice. It strikes me that those works almost couldn't be written by someone who was steeped in theater.

Rupert Holmes: I actually was steeped in theater. Even as a young man, I would sit there and say, "Ah well, so much has already been done that's so good. Is there something that someone hasn't tried yet?"

When I went to Joe Papp and told him about my notion for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, his basic question was, "How would you ever do this?" And I tried to lay out how I thought it could be done, and when we opened in Central Park, after the very first performance we were sitting in the Delacorte all alone. Joe Papp's there, myself, and the director, Wilford Leach. Joe turned to me and said, "Um, it works!"

I said, "You're just deciding that now? You mean we went six weeks of rehearsal with Betty Buckley and Cleo Laine and George Rose and we got $300,000 worth of sets and now you've decided that the mechanics work?" And he said, "Well, I just wasn't sure! But the only way we're going to find out was to do it."

Thumbs is really a more traditional mystery comedy. What I realized had not been done a lot in this genre has been that no one has written a Sleuth for women. Most of the thrillers that have been written are for men, and the women in them are usually either the reason for the murder or the victim.

I thought there's such a real gap in the genre. There are male roles in the play, and they're all extremely vital. There are no throwaway roles. However, I do think at the center of the play are two women.

Creative Loafing: It sounds like you're keeping the fourth wall.

Rupert Holmes: Yeah, I should tell you in advance since you were so adept at sussing out all of that game playing I was doing [in Accomplice]. Unlike a lot of my plays, you needn't go hunting for clues in the playbill.

Creative Loafing: So how did this thing materialize in Charlotte?

Rupert Holmes: Well, the thing you hope as a playwright is to find somewhere where you can put on a play and entertain the audience and learn about the play. It's as if a play is Alka-Seltzer or Kool-Aid. Until you add water, it doesn't exist. So until you add an audience to a play, there's a lot you don't know about it. So I have tried recently to find a way to open a show out of town without having to really go way, way out of town. And I did Thumbs as a gift to a community theater in New Jersey that does a very, very fine professional job with plays.

And somehow Dan Shoemaker [of Actor's Theatre] found out about it. And he e-mailed me. And I was very, very aware of the production they did of Accomplice, and it was very nicely received by not only yourself but by a number of other writers in the area. So I get this e-mail from Dan saying, "What is Thumbs, and we're interested in it." And I said, "It's never been performed anywhere. This is just a workshop I'm doing. I'd be glad to share it with you. But I'll tell you what. I'm not going to send you the third act. You can see the third act if you want to do the play." I sent him Acts I and II, and he went nuts. He said, "You can't leave me hanging like this. I want to know how this turns out!"

Creative Loafing: Fairly keen interest.

Rupert Holmes: He said, "We're doing it. I don't even care if Santa appears in the last act and says, 'Oh, it was all a dream!'"

Creative Loafing: Has there been any impact on the plays and musicals that you have upcoming on Broadway because of the downturn in the business?

Rupert Holmes: Well, I don't think we've even fully measured yet what it's done to Broadway. I think more shows are going to close that were not planning to close. Kiss Me, Kate looks like it's in trouble. And I'm told that Phantom...PHANTOM I'm talking about now, OK? — I think it played to 400 people two nights ago.

So will it affect anything? The one I'm finishing right now is The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is again a big, big musical. It's the most epic thing I've created since Drood. What [the downturn] is going to do I can only begin to guess. I think it's going to make any large undertaking — for a while, at least - very, very difficult. It's not a great time for big theater. It's a good time for us to be focusing on the theater that I love, which is more intimate theater.

In the last few years, the one thing that's been impossible to find is a Broadway theater. The only reason we've waited so long to take Say Goodnight, Gracie to New York is we just haven't been able to find the right theater for a one-man show. Really, you only have about five theaters like that — and they were all booked forever. So we were going to open in March, and my guess is, knock wood, we will. But no sooner. We're not going to take advantage of other people's hardship right now.

Thumbs Review

Perry Tannenbaum

(This has been slightly edited due to a reviewer's comment that gave part of the plot away.)

You never know where the next surprise is coming from when you watch a piece by Rupert Holmes. But it's coming soon. In Holmes's latest, Thumbs, now getting an "Exclusive World Preview" from The Actor's Theatre of Charlotte, one big surprise enters suddenly from stage right wearing a ski mask, wielding a meat cleaver. Others jump out of the mouths of Holmes's vain, predatory characters as finely shaped bon mots, puns, and wordplay. Our story starts in a secluded Vermont hideaway with a showdown between an egotistical TV star and her spiteful ex-husband. She's keenly aware that she's at a crossroads in her career. "I'll be 40 last month," the glamorous Marta Dunhill purrs. But her ex is getting set to blackmail her with a seamy tell-all expose that will demolish her angelic TV image if published. "By the end of Chapter 1," Freddie Bradshaw boasts, "your career will be in Chapter 11." Irresistible, aren't they?

The murderer establishes an elaborate alibi and attempts to piggyback onto the work of an at-large serial killer, co-opting his gory trademark, lopping off the victim's thumbs with an electric knife. Relative calm is restored with the arrival of the rustic constabulary. Sheriff Jane Morton, as portrayed by newcomer Laura Depta, sets up as a plumpish female Columbo with flecks of Mayberry's Sheriff Andy Taylor liberally tossed in. Her nephew Wilton Dekes, peeping out of a flop-eared deer- hunter's cap, comes across as a dumbed-down Barney Fife. Baring as many teeth as possible and mouth-breathing for all he's worth, Mark Scarboro scintillates in the role, looking like a slimmed-down Don Knotts. The laughs, however, come full-sized. With five Tony Awards for The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985, and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Accomplice, Holmes has repeatedly proven himself a consummate showman. As always, he's very clever in snatching away assumptions we make in Thumbs about who's who and what's what. Tricky too. Somewhat diabolically, Holmes sometimes deals from the bottom of the deck, having a character masquerade for us when the deception should be reserved for the consumption of other characters. Chip Decker lavishes plenty of wood and paneling in his sturdy, tacky set design; and Hallie Gray points up the melodrama and the showbiz of Thumbs in her lighting. Lon Bumgarner directs at a brisk pace, sustaining the suspense without sacrificing the frothy, comical war of wits.

Our Vermont rustics are a dream. Depta's Sheriff Jane has an explosive intensity that's simply breathtaking. And Scarboro's Wilton is probably the best reason Holmes needs to come down to Charlotte before he opens this baby up in New York.

Thumbs is such slickly crafted entertainment that even the curtain call is cleverly scripted. Charlotteans will likely emerge from Duke Courtyard Theatre pinching themselves, wondering how we had the luck to land the first professional production. I daresay it will return for many more — by professional and amateur groups — in years to come.


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