The Line of the Year by Matthew Murray

    The life of a theatre critic is not always easy, often because of what can make it so great: seeing so many shows. It's exhausting, both the watching and the writing, and not all of it (or even a significant fraction of it) is worth the time. But whenever you come across something truly special and memorable, it makes all the rest of it worthwhile. Sometimes it's a fantastic new play or musical (or one so anti-fantastic, it's indelible), an astounding individual performance, or even a single line.

    I attended over 250 shows in 2008, and came across one that contained a bit of dialogue that unquestionably deserves the title of The Line of the Year. And I'm going to share it with you. But because it's the climax of the incredibly convoluted plot of Tim O'Leary's Pieces on the Board, which played at the New York International Fringe Festival this past August, it first needs some setup. For the rest of this post, I'm going to be working under the assumption that you won't be seeing the play performed anywhere near you anytime soon, but if it does show up and you think you might be interested in seeing it, you really should stop here—spoilers positively abound.

    The plot, in brief (since I'm sure we'd all like this wrapped up before 2009 hits), is as follows.

    1. An older man, Cliff, enters a bar and strikes up a conversation with the bartender, Logan.
    2. We quickly discover that Cliff is a magnate—though of what, we don't yet know—and Logan is his estranged son.
    3. Cliff wants to leave everything he has to Logan upon his death, but Logan is skeptical of anything and everything the old man says, long ago having given up trusting him.
    4. Cliff leaves, but plans to come back, hopefully when his son is more receptive.
    5. Logan, as receptive as he's apparently going to get, hires a hit man to kill his father.
    6. The hit man instead ends up being a hot woman, named Sara. She and Logan don't exactly hit it off, but business is business.
    7. Sara goes over to Cliff's house and tries to kill him, but through a twisty turn of events he actually convinces her that he's poisoned her, and the only way she can get the antidote is to return to Logan and kill him.
    8. Sara returns to the bar to do that, but doesn't get far: Logan convinces her that his father not only made up the whole thing, but also killed Sara's mother, an assassin trainer (who also, of course, trained Sara).
    9. Sara returns to Cliff's house and kills him.
    10. Cliff's body is discovered by his henchman, Jack, who also works at Logan's bar and is obviously very close with Logan—ostensibly, it's starting to look, because he was under Cliff's orders the whole time.
    11. Sara returns to the bar to settle her business with Logan but runs into Jack, who kills her.
    12. As soon as the deed is done, Logan appears and begins making out with Jack. (Apparently, they were a lot closer than it previously seemed.)
    13. Not only have the pair been lovers for a long time, but Jack was on Logan's payroll to spy on Cliff at the same time he was on Cliff's payroll to spy on Logan.
    14. Neither, however, needs to be on anyone's payroll anymore: They're rich, Logan having inherited all of Cliff's money. They plan to celebrate by moving to St. Thomas.
    15. Logan leaves the bar to start making plans, and Jack follows close behind and shoots him. That's the end of Act I (and no, I'm not kidding).
    16. Act I, several months later. Jack has moved to St. Thomas alone and started up a new life, and found a new lover, named Greg.
    17. Things between the two are starting to get very serious, and it seems like there's nothing they can't talk to each other about.
    18. The key word there being "seems," since one night while the two are playing chess (the game that gives the title its metaphor) Greg pulls a gun on Jack.
    19. Not only is Greg not gay, he was Sara's lover once upon a time, and everything her mother taught her about being an assassin, he also learned.
    20. (This progression is shown throughout Act II in flashbacks to life prior to Sara's mother's death, at Cliff's hands. Sara's mother had long been after Cliff, and found him but never lived to tell the tale.)
    21. Anyway, Greg has gone through everything expressly for the purpose of killing Jack as revenge for killing Sara.
    22. The two have a protracted fight scene, and after a few tense moments, Greg gets his wish.
    23. Alone only with his rage, Greg turns the gun on himself, but he's not full enough of self-loathing, so he can't fire. He tosses the gun to the floor and walks out as the play ends.

    I hope I'm not leaving anything major out, but this should be enough for you to get the gist of the story. (As I recall, Sara and Logan were also either siblings or half-siblings, but I'm a little foggy on those details.) The play itself is a fascinating lesson in why sometimes you can have too much story, but it surprised in a few ways, particularly with the gay gangster angle, which is not an area that's frequently explored, and it did make for a good first-act climax.

    But it also led to The Line of the Year. It is, in many ways, the perfect line: for a play so ridiculously complex; for the Fringe Festival, which is ridiculously complex in its own way; and for a playwright to get one solid... uh... laugh out of a story that's very dark and not at all given to originality of any sort. And I promise you that the line was uttered in a completely serious context, which just made it all the better (or worse, depending on your point of view).

    So, here it is. Spoken by Jack to Greg immediately upon learning the extent of his masquerade: "That explains all the wincing."

    That's my Line of the Year. What's yours? E-mail me at [email protected] and let me know.

    Tuesday, December 30, 2008 at 8:00 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    02/13/2009: Not Quite Back to Before

    12/30/2008: The Line of the Year

    12/29/2008: All Good Gifts, if Only for Yourself

    12/01/2008: Review: Mauritius at the Women's Theater Company in Parsippinay, New Jersey

    11/30/2008: Review: Southern Comforts at the Bickford Theatre in Morris Township, New Jersey

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.