In today’s world, many are passed over for promotion, often causing jealousy and bitter reactions to the person who does advance over you. But just how far would you go to get that job you want and feel best qualified for, at least in your own mind? And what if you feel that person in the positions above you was just so vile and wrong for the job that you became convinced the world would simply be a better place if that person was dead? Would you have a moral imperative to shove that individual over to the other side? That’s the question posed by the new World Premiere mystery MORAL IMPERATIVE by L.A.-based playwright Samuel Warren Joseph, now onstage at Theatre 40 through October 17.
The play centers on Seth (Martin Thompson who exemplifies the cool demeanor of a man used to getting what he wants) and Robert (Ken Kamlet as a nerdy man needing a leader to follow), academics who are convinced that their beloved Briarton University will just go straight to hell if it’s allowed to remain under the stewardship of their despised University President, Oscar (David Hunt Stafford who seems to be a totally likeable character, at first). It doesn’t help matters that the Trustees passed over Seth and gave the presidency to Oscar, who wants to abolish faculty tenures as his first order of business, thus removing older tenured professors, such as Seth and Robert, from their lucrative positions. And since both love the world-class institution where they are employed, after much discussion Seth and Robert feel morally obligated to remove Oscar – and plan to take steps to accomplish their goal.
While entertaining Robert and his wife Karen (Kyoko Okazaki who seems to struggle with her Asian accent during opening scene dialogue, but recovers nicely later on), Seth asks his adoring wife Mary (Susan Damante whose character knows how to turn a blind eye to his husband’s indiscretions) to take Karen on a tour of their lovely home, thus giving himself the opportunity to manipulate Robert into following in his decision to poison Oscar and get rid of his body. And while Robert agrees to the plan, he soon has many moral misgivings to complete the task, thus suffering extreme guilt once the nasty deed has been done. And watch for Hunt Stafford’s brutally honest and slow death descent as the poison enters his system. The men may see him as their nemesis, but the scene will make you wonder how this type of murder was ever planned against such a nice man.
After Oscar’s body is discovered, Pauline, a police detective (portrayed with inner city charm by Brandee Steger), interviews Seth and Robert. And while Seth and Mary remain cool and collected, Robert’s nervousness raises her suspicions about their actions and motives. I guarantee you will be glued to your seat and focused on their every word, wondering if Seth and Robert will be able to pull off their scheme. Of course, morally I cannot reveal the ending!
Howard Storm directs with the sure hand displayed as one of the busiest directors of television comedy in Hollywood (Rhoda, Mork & Mindy, Taxi, Laverne and Shirley, Gimme A Break, ALF, Everybody Loves Raymond, more). He’s appeared on stage at Theatre 40 and also directed, including last year’s Hellman v. McCarthy, starring Dick Cavett. It’s clear he knows how to hold the audience’s attention by focusing on dialogue and creating clarity of characters you can easily get to know, feeling sorry for them as they suffer morally from their decisions.
Jeff G. Rack again creates a perfect stage setting for the show, letting us see the fine home and life Robert has created for himself and Mary. Ric Zimmerman, now in his fourth season in residence at Theatre 40, again creates beautiful lighting effects to enhance each mood shift during the play, while focusing a spotlight on Robert between scenes as he attempts to sway the audience to his point of view on the situation as it evolves. As always, Michele Young’s costumes are spot on and perfectly suited to their characters.