Arts Desk

Questioning Jules Feiffer’s Little Murders at American Century

City Paper readers know that I'm not a theater critic, but Jules Feiffer is a cartoonist from way back, long before he became a playwright. The American Century Theater has revived Little Murders, his 1967 play about the decline of New York City and individual morals. The dark comedy centers on a family, their daughter and her new boyfriend, and a wave of murders engulfing the city; maybe you've seen the 1971 movie adaptation.

Director Ellen Dempsey answered some questions about the production.

Washington City Paper: How was Little Murders selected? Did one of you have a pre-existing familiarity or fondness for Jules Feiffer?

Ellen Dempsey: Jack Marshall, our artistic director, loves Feiffer. And in 2010 I read Feiffer's memoir, Backing Into Forward and there was a lot of information on Little Murders. I thought it was a perfect fit for American Century's mission of promoting 20th century American plays and reviving worthy plays at risk of being forgotten. Little Murders has a lot to say about our current society and it's similarities to the late '60s.  Plus it is a very funny play.

WCP: If so, do you know Feiffer best as a playwright, or a cartoonist, or a children's book author? Which part of his career contains his best work?

ED: I think I was most aware of him as a cartoonist, growing up it was certainly the most accessible.  Later, being interested in theater, I knew him as a playwright. But recently I am very aware of his children's books, especially his recent collaborations with his daughter, Kate. As for his best work, I can't pinpoint one area, they are all interconnected on some level and he is still producing work into his 80s, which is phenomenal.

WCP: Why do you think Feiffer's work—about a decaying and murderous New York City circa 1967—has a relevance today?

ED: As Jack Marshall wrote in our press release, “The current anxiety about the direction of America and social justice concerns is very reminiscent of the Sixties—the specifics are different but the stresses are similar. Stress is what makes great comedy, and the times have come around to make Little Murders as funny and eye-opening as it was when it premiered. That’s too bad for America, but good for audiences who need a laugh.” The play is about more than just NYC and 1967… it’s about America and its ever-changing future. I wonder if in 30 years we all look back at 2011-2012 and mark it as a time of social change as we do with the late '60s.  Occupy Wall Street is still happening and that is about questioning institutions at the core, which is one of the themes of Little Murders. We in D.C. can still remember the effect of the D.C. sniper and the little things that we all did to avoid the random violence of that situation.  I remember crouching by my car when getting gas and it being normal because everyone did it.  Random violence is just that, random, and I think it shakes us to the core.

WCP: This play's satire is very broad—almost to the point of ridiculousness. Was there any problem staging it?

ED: Every play you do you have to create a world in which it takes place on the stage. One of the challenges with this was the world outside the play is always trying to get in.  Gun shots on the street. Never-ending traffic.  Obscene phone callers. I approached it as the set and the world were another character. It's very hard to allow sound to encroach the actors' world. There is a soundtrack of the outside world throughout the show which I think effects all the characters.

WCP: Was the play altered at all? Or did you use it as Feiffer wrote it?

ED: It is as Feiffer wrote it.  There is certainly language that we as 21st century theatergoers are and should be offended by. But taken in the context of the time, it was what was used.  I think that is important to keep not only to the author's words, but the spirit of the time. We should cringe when Alfred talks of "colored kids," because we have evolved that now that is very offensive, but I think you have to know where you came from in order to make better choices.

WCP: Feiffer's always been known for his wordplay—did any particular phrase or section ring particularly true, or stand out for you?

ED: I have three in particular that go from the sublime to the ridiculous. First in speaking of institutions the character of Alfred says, "It is very dangerous to challenge a system unless you're completely at peace with the thought that you're not going to miss it when it collapses." Then later the same character says. "I don't have patience for facts, or any of that nonsense anymore." And when things were tough in rehearsals, I wanted to quote the character of Carol and say, "Stop all this silliness and drink your liquor!"

WCP: If this is a success, would you plan on doing more of Feiffer's plays?

ED: I would love to! I think there is a lot left to explore in Feiffer's work.

WCP: Feiffer regularly visits Washington. Has he been invited to see the play?

ED: I did reach out to Mr. Feiffer. A bit of a cold call so I'm not sure if he got the invite. I would be honored if he were to see the show.

Little Murders runs to Feb. 11 at Gunston Arts Center Theater II, 2700 South Lang St/, Arlington. (703 ) 998-4555, ext. 6. $23-35. Photos by Dennis Deloria, courtesy American Century Theater.

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  • Jes sayin’

    I saw two movies in my youth that were box office flops that I considered masterpieces. The first, Night of the Hunter, has since been reconsidered by critics, and is now regarded as a masterpiece. The second, Little Murders, is another gem. It is absolutely worth your while. The supporting actors, including Lou Jacoby and Donald Sutherland, are simply brilliant.