Killing John Grisham
nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 14, 2011
For the first three years of my New York City life, I spent nearly every day working at the downtown independent bookstore Shakespeare & Company, first on the floor and then in the stockroom as the shipping and receiving manager. I was surrounded by books, I got to discuss literature all day long, I made less money than any sane person should be satisfied to live on, and I equally loved and loathed every second of it. If playwright Jack Moore doesn’t have a similar job lurking somewhere down in his curriculum vitae, I’d be stunned—his Killing John Grisham is a witty, clever play that, while touching upon many issues and ideas, is in the end a loving/loathing paean to that particular circle of Dantean retail hell: bookstore employment.
Acted gamely by a young cast (all seemingly in their early-to-mid-twenties excepting Christopher Cartmill as John Grisham himself, who functions as the only adult in the room while bringing a beautifully paternal-yet-smarmy aloofness to the arguably egregiously-popular author), Moore’s play centers on three workers at Shakespeare and Shaw Bookstore: Michael, the quiet new guy who’s content to do his job and then read on the floor; Kevin, the know-it-all, literarily elite smartass who can’t even pay James Joyce a compliment without adding some editorial disclaimers; and Josh, the put-upon manager, who’s spent the past three years working on a novel that he’s finally letting people read, despite an overwhelming fear of its inadequacies.
It turns out his fears are misplaced—even Kevin (played with an enjoyable, preening charm by J.H. Smith III) thinks the book is fantastic, and he “hates everything!” However, complications arise when everybody’s favorite purveyor of formulaic legal thrillers, John Grisham, comes to the store to give a reading of his newest potboiler and then, a few months later, publishes a novel with a different (better?) title but the exact content as Josh’s deeply personal masterpiece. Throw in an erratically violent underside to one of the bookstore employees and next thing you know, Josh and company have an increasingly worsening situation on their hands.
The first act of the show is an utter delight. The dialogue is snappy, the dynamics are effervescent and intelligent, and the plot devices that are set up are rife with promise (the moment when Josh, Michael, and Kevin realize what Grisham has done is especially beautifully played).
The second act, while having its share of laughs and good lines, is ultimately a bit of a letdown, as the plot almost seems to get in the way of what Moore and director Nicole A. Watson want their characters to experience emotionally. The resolution of Josh’s girlfriend Rebecca’s journey, in particular, comes across slapdash, and I was left unsure as to what the piece was finally trying to leave us with—whether a lesson had been learned or another Grisham-like monster had been created. I’m all for ambiguity, but it seemed to arise more from tonal inconsistencies than intent.
Still, Watson’s direction keeps things going at a good pace and she moves the ensemble well through Raphael Mishler’s simple but exact and effective set. Toby Jaguar Algya’s sound design is a great complement to the action on the stage and the lighting by Greg Solomon ably and smartly utilizes the Festival’s limited lighting options to excellent effect. I can easily recommend this FringeNYC installment for its good humor, great promise, and wonderful evocation of a world some of us might know all too well. And if there’s a show that better uses references to The Firm this year, I’d like to see it.