In Samuel Warren Joseph’s new play, Moral Imperative, receiving its world premiere at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, we are invited to flirt with murder as a solution to the ongoing destruction of American higher education. Is this “anarchic” political strategy a tempting proposition for you? It will be for some. Is, then, the criminal professor-hero of Moral Imperative, Seth (the very smooth Martin Thompson), a one-man black bloc? No. Almost, but no. That would be a very different play and a different theater. More German, less Beverly Hills.
As an exercise in speculative violence, Moral Imperative does begin with a faint hint of satiric wickedness. The text could even be staged to prolong that effect, but it isn’t. The style, quickly established as earnest by director Howard Storm, holds very few surprises of that kind. The result is an old-fashioned working-out of a familiar genre diagram.
One genre source might be Freeman Wills Crofts, known for constructing the howdunnit, a variety of mystery in which the killer is known but the proof is lacking, forerunner of so many current TV procedurals. In Moral Imperative, we see who, how, and why from the beginning, and as the detective (Brandee Steger) draws closer with her questions about what had seemed at first a death by natural causes, most of the suspense involves the murderer’s elimination of proofs.
The act of murder does protect Seth’s university from an immediate neocon-neoliberal attack. And that’s why he did it, or so he repeatedly claims to his unraveling accomplice (Ken Kamlet). The worthy victim — and Seth’s rival — Oscar (David Hunt Stafford), had just been appointed the new president of Briarton University. Oscar has been identified by his affiliation with neocon power (he was an advisor to the US-Central American policies of the 80s), and as a proponent of neoliberal creative destruction (he intended, as president, to abolish tenure).
What will happen to killer Seth, who has now replaced his victim as the next president of Briarton? Will it be execution, suicide or madness?
The cast includes spouses of the killer and the accomplice (Susan Damate and Kyoko Okazaki).
Theatre 40 is a subscription company, long-established, in residence at Beverly Hills High School in the Reuben Cordova Theatre. The show is likely to please fans of Murder, She Wrote or Law and Order: Criminal Intent. The violence is without gore. The acting, uneven but adequate, is presented by veterans with long careers, and — as you’ll see from the program bios — with one degree of separation from familiar entertainment icons.