The Killing of Michael Malloy

Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol, through Nov. 1, 785-0100

As a comedy, Erik Jendresen's The Killing of Michael Malloy is a one-joke sitcom that runs out of steam well before the playwright has finished stretching it out to its full length.

As a based-on-a-true-story docudrama, The Killing of Michael Malloy is mildly interesting - almost as interesting as the newspaper headlines of the historical incident lining the walls of the lobby at Bristol Riverside Theatre (where the original director, Ron Link, is giving the 1993 play its regional premiere en route to an off-Broadway run).

But once The Killing of Michael Malloy abandons its efforts to be funny and sheds its historical realism, it becomes a psychological fantasy play with profound metaphysical implications. That's when the play really starts getting interesting, and, unfortunately, when it really begins to sputter and fail.

We're in New York in the winter of 1933, at the height of the Depression, between Roosevelt's election and his inauguration, right before the repeal of Prohibition. Five struggling working schlubs - Tony, the proprietor of a speakeasy (Hugh O'Gorman); an immigrant undertaker (Andrew Fiscella); a nervous greengrocer (Anthony Barrile); a cab driver (Dan Gerrity); and a half-wit bartender (John Jezior) - have hatched a scheme whereby they take out an insurance policy on some ailing innocent naming themselves as beneficiaries, see to it that their victim dies of seemingly natural causes, and then collect the cash.

As the play begins, they have just dispatched their first victim, and choose as their second Michael Malloy (Maurice Roëves), an alcoholic streetperson who cadges drinks in the bar, whom they plan to poison by serving him antifreeze, hoping that a coroner, if he even bothers to look, will conclude that it was simply bad alcohol.

This is where the comedy comes in. Malloy proves to be indestructible, downing gallons of antifreeze, horse liniment, turpentine and other liquids spanning the spectrum of nauseatingly chartreuse colors, and gobbling equally lethal munchies, all to no effect. If you read the newspaper accounts in the lobby during the intermission, you'll know that this was, evidently, true of the historical Malloy, and you'll also know that the attempts to bump him off in the second act - by exposure and by car accident - will also fail. When Malloy survives the first time, it's funny. When (like Christy Mahon's father in The Playboy of the Western World) he survives a second time, it's even funnier. From then on, the gimmick begins to lose its kick; the playwright, like the prop-master, might just as well be serving up colored water as antifreeze.

This is where the metaphysics come in. Malloy, who all along has been spouting Irish blarney, laced equally with booze and death, now turns prophetic. He knows what melody will next be played on the jukebox; he knows that Prohibition will be abolished, that Hitler, newly elected as chancellor of Germany, will turn to genocide; that the United States will enter a war in the Pacific. He knows, moreover, all of Tony's secret shames and guilts, and the childhood sources of Tony's seeming callousness and homicidal brutality.

Malloy, then, stops being a real person, and becomes - in Tony's perceptions, and consequently in ours - a dramatic device, Tony's secret sharer, his conscience, his philosophic guide to the interstices of past, present and future.

And - whether because the character of Tony is too much of a brute all along for me to be ready to share his suffering; because the plot doesn't sufficiently distinguish Tony from his four co-conspirators to let us know that he is the play's most important character; because O'Gorman gets lost in the character's bluster, even when the character is suffering; because the charms of Roëves' performance as Malloy begin to wear off when he begins to get prophetic; or because the writing just becomes too dense for me to follow - this is where the play just lost me.

Rita Taggart ably plays a barmaid with a conscience, the one voice of moral principles in the play. The speakeasy setting is by David Mitchell. And the lighting, which becomes icily surreal when the play takes its turn for the metaphysical, is by Scott Pinkney.

-Cary M. Mazer