On Sunday, in front of a small, masked and spaced audience at the Theater Center, New York’s most persistent show made a comeback after what might be described as – in the scheme of things – a brief intermission.
Warren Manzi’s “Perfect Crime” opened on April 18, 1987 and has stubbornly stayed put. The cheeky murder mystery has remained more or less the same as everything has changed around it. It took a pandemic to stop the show for 13 months.
So far, Catherine Russell, now 65, had only missed four performances in the lead role of a possibly murderous psychiatrist. She is also the Managing Director of the Theater Center, which also hosts “The Office: A Musical Parody”. This program is running again; Russell hands out tickets at his box office.
“Perfect Crime” was the first Off Broadway show with a live audience to open with the endorsement of Actors’ Equity. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke ahead of Sunday’s show, telling spectators, “The show must go on.” Russell was blunt in his belief that the series could have happened much earlier.
After his 13,524th curtain call, Russell chose a familiar spot in his book-lined office on stage to talk about 34 years of “Perfect Crime.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Congratulations on the reopening. How does it feel to be back?
It’s wonderful to be on stage in a room full of people. I enjoy it so much, and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I sell the tickets before the show at the other show. I leave the stage, I go downstairs and I take out the garbage from the locker rooms on the third floor. Sometimes I immerse a toilet. I love every part of it.
I am a person who likes stability who chose an area that was not very stable. But I was able to have a fairly stable life in the theater.
What was it like suddenly losing that stability last year?
I was fine! I missed being on stage, but it was good not to. I did not dream of it.
You didn’t want to do a version on Zoom.
Oh my God no. I went to the theater every day to work. It’s a few blocks from my apartment.
If I wasn’t near a theater I think I would have missed it. But I was still there, in my home away from home, teaching theater privately and working on the reopening. We found additional unused paint and repainted walls in unusual colors, fixed seats, Marie Kondo-ed behind the scenes.
I did a lot of research on how to make it safe and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how not only for me to get back on stage, but for theaters to reopen in New York City. We have our Atmos air cleaners there. It is very safe here.
You also organized a legal action against the city and the state, pushing for the reopening?
I really felt strongly that everything had to be closed and that was fine with me. But then things started to reopen. The restaurants were open, the gymnasiums were open. The bowling alleys are what pushed me over the edge. I have nothing against bowling, but if you put your fingers in these holes and wear rental shoes, why can’t you go to the theater? It was nothing malicious, but the theater fell through the cracks.
The costume is still in progress. We are asking for 50% capacity. I think we will win.
M. de Blasio was here this evening. Did you talk to him about it?
No, I don’t know if he knows I’m chasing him. I am grateful that he and [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo let us open. But I would like to be After open.
I’m also fundraising to convert a garage down the street into a five-theater complex. We need more Off Broadway theaters, especially now after Covid. Smaller theaters will be more convenient – it’s much easier to fundraise for an Off Broadway show than a Broadway show. And I really think we need more downtown theaters that are clean and safe, and Covid-safe, where people feel comfortable going. I built this place 15 years ago. I didn’t know what I was doing. So I kind of want to take what I’ve learned here and apply it.
You must have failed to interact with the audience.
Normally I like to talk to people after the show and hear what they think about it. Sometimes someone will wait for me afterwards and say, “You know what? I am a librarian and have never missed a day of work. This kind of mentality, which presents itself at work every day, strikes a chord with many people. They admire it.
Are there no times when your heart is not there?
Sometimes people come and think she’s going to call. And I’m kinda like, I fuck you! You may think I’m stupid or something to do it, but I am do not call. I did it when I wasn’t feeling well, I was really tired, when I was crying horribly. But honestly, if I thought I was calling him, I’d say it’s time to go.
Do you think you missed something because of your commitment to the show? There must have been a few dinner invitations turned down over the years.
I was actually engaged to someone else when I started doing “Perfect Crime.” He said it ruined his life. He didn’t want to be married to someone who would be on stage eight times a week. Although I didn’t know the play was going to last that long… obviously.
But I was lucky to finally be married to someone who understood it. We got married at City Hall at 11 am and had lunch at the Palm. Then I went back to work and he took a nap, and we were both very happy.
I notice there is a props book of William Shakespeare’s Complete Works out there. Have you ever dreamed of doing another play eight times a week?
I am happy in this room. He’s a really complicated character, and it’s fun to find different aspects of that character as you get older. I did not get bored of doing it.
A great thing to do in a room like this is let everything you feel during the day escape. I can cry on stage, get up, get off the stage and everything I felt is gone. You know what I mean? I don’t mean to say it cleanses the soul. It sounds pretentious. But it’s a good way to use whatever has happened to you in your life.
Does the character seem different to you today?
I think my performance is a little different after the year we’ve had. At the end of the play, I collapsed more. But she recovered. She is a little more robust, a little stronger.