When you're in a show, especially a weird one, you often pass the time -- when another actor is speaking -- by wondering: "What does this seem like to the audience?" In 1996, I appeared in the Pittsburgh premiere of the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman show Assassins, a musical about everyone who has killed or tried to kill a president of the United States, and I spent lots of time trying to guess what the audience was thinking. Thanks to the Point Park University Conservatory of Performing Arts production, I now have my answer: Man, is this show depressing!
Under normal circumstances, you can usually find out what an audience thinks from the reviews (if you can call critics "normal"). But the reviews of this show, especially the New York premiere, didn't help, because most focused on Assassins' internal moral dilemma: If people from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald to John Hinckley dreamed up their acts to get attention ... doesn't Assassins only help them?
But what this amazing Point Park production says quite clearly is that while notoriety was certainly a part of it, what drove these people was a bottomless well of self-loathing, an overwhelming sense of their own freakishness and an aching need for human connection -- even if that meant to be hated by as many people as possible.
Far from glorifying the assassins, as some have charged, Assassins humanizes them by showing us how the decision to commit a horrible act is made. Phrases like "evil-doers" and "Axis of Evil" are OK, I guess, if you live in a world of cartoon heroes and villains. But true evil happens when something good is corrupted into something bad.
And did I mention that Assassins is funny? Really, really funny? Sondheim and Weidman are wise enough to know that desperation can be both terrifying and hilarious.
Director Jack Allison blessedly handles all the convictions and contradictions of Assassins with enormous energy and focus. I could quibble -- this production's carnival-style "Hit" and "Miss" signs are inconsistent and distracting, and turning the shooting-gallery Proprietor into Mephistopheles seems to give the assassins a "devil made me do it" excuse, as well as robbing the Booth character of dramatic weight. But those things are minor; Allison's done a terrific job and, if nothing else, he and musical director Jeffrey Sarver get one of the best-sounding Assassins ever out of this fiercely talented student cast. God, these kids and their voices! Add in knockout performances by, among many others, Justin Peebles, Matthew Benedict, Jordan Grubb and Zack Block and you have one powerhouse of an evening.
Assassins continues through Sun., March 30. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. 412-621-4445 or www.pittsburghplayhouse.com