A Process of Elimination
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 2, 2011
Gene Ruffini's new play, A Process of Elimination, strives to be a suspense thriller in the mode of Sleuth and Deathtrap. Directed by Celine Havard at Theater for the New City's Cino space, the premiere production is unfortunately something of a hit-or-miss affair, featuring an interesting and unusual storyline about modern-day witches and highlighted by a few good performances.
Process takes place in the apartment of Julian DeWinter, a Broadway producer who fancies himself the reincarnation of legendary impressario David Belasco. (The apartment is presumably above the Belasco—here renamed the DeWinter—Theatre; Belasco haunts the room, as he is said to do the actual theatre on 44th Street.)
Julian and his wife, Elaine, are witches; Elaine is in fact the High Priestess of a coven into which Susan Carot, a young actress who is infatuated with Julian, will be initiated this very night. Aiding in the ritual are Julian and Elaine's fellow witches Noreen and Maxwell Pratt and John Stanton. Noreen is a former mistress of Julian's and Max is her playwright husband; John, an actor, reveals at the beginning of the play that he and Elaine are having an affair and that Elaine is going to leave Julian for him.
With all of these adulterous relationships, there's plenty of motivation for someone to kill someone else in the DeWinter apartment, and indeed more than one murder takes place during the course of A Process of Elimination. (The title is a sort of pun alluding to this fact.) Meanwhile, as the body count mounts and suspicions fall upon Julian and Elaine both for engineering the deaths, the witch initiation rite plays out, and various manifestations of some of the coven's members' powers are revealed. (A program note assures us that the ritual is authentic.)
Ruffini's script has the ingredients for an entertaining thriller, but some of the choices in the writing make the piece feel confusing and/or unconvincing in places. Probably most problematic of these is that the play is set in the present day, which makes some of the contrivances in the script (cellular phones that suddenly won't work and people who won't walk outside to use them there; a thunderstorm that conveniently blacks out a midtown Manhattan neighborhood) seem unlikely at best. Also, I suspect the witchcraft elements might feel more persuasive if there were a more timeless quality to the storytelling.
Havard's direction doesn't provide the requisite energy and focus that a thriller like this needs. There are several moments in Ruffini's play that are surprising enough to elicit some gasps from the audience, but their handling here often diminishes their potential impact. David Zen Mansley's set, which depicts the living room of the DeWinter apartment along with an adjacent study, doesn't quite do justice to the mysterious secret panels that the script calls for, either.
The cast of eight is nicely anchored by Michael Gnat, who does a commendable job as Julian. Lisa Tracy brings elegance, groundedness, and presence to her portrayal of Noreen. And Mitchell Conway delivers a fine turn in the role of Victor Simon, the vigorous, enigmatic young man who accompanies Susan to the initiation ceremony.