Murder at the Exit is poorly written, directed, and acted -- which is to say, go see it. Though the short series of noir-esque scenes by Catchy Name Theatre Company and the Unknown Players won't be making top 10 theater lists any time soon, the show easily garners another, more interesting superlative: most bizarre theater experience of the year.
The venue, the Actors Center of San Francisco, uses for its a lobby a long, dingy hallway lined with a nearly empty pamphlet case -- and motorcycles. Don't think you can simply buy tickets and walk (or motorcycle) straight into the theater, though. At 10 minutes before one recent performance, director Irving Schulman said he would go up to the theater and call down if things were ready. In the meantime, the ticket-taker made jokes with the four audience members present about his disdain for optimism. Once Schulman called, the ticket-taker gave the audience instructions that were less theater and more haunted house: Proceed down the dark hallway, climb the dark stairs, round the dark corners, walk down one more dark corridor, and enter the door on your right. The pre-show spelunk bonded the four spectators -- a useful ice-breaker, as, by curtain, they'd still be the only souls there.
If the hallways suggested a re-purposed office, the theater itself brought the audience back into domesticity. A bookshelf rested against one wall, a sofa sat against another, and the whole thing was the size of a living room; the stage itself could house few more than two actors at a time. At one point, Schulman warned the audience to beware of a neighborhood cat that might crawl through the window.
The company made stabs at professionalism: Pre-show music featured, incongruously, some smooth Frank Sinatra, but the music kept cutting out, and the operator kept changing his mind about which song he wanted to play. Schulman made a curtain speech, but, apropos of nothing, he wielded a stapler gun, pointed it at his neck, and asked, "Should I do it?"
We suppose that we should mention the actual content of Murder at the Exit at some point. The show ostensibly consists of two one-act plays written by Jim Strope: Pounding and Director's Cut. But the show's three discreet scenes, none of which relate to any other, offer no clear division into two. Each follows tough-talking noir stereotypes: the out-of-work private eye considering a foray into crime, the artist so depressed he wants to off himself, the two hit men jockeying for status. But so oblique and static is Strope's writing that it's almost impossible to tell what each scene is about or what's at stake. Schulman's direction, which keeps the actors glued in place or tentatively shuffling about, supplies little help, and the ensemble (Richard Gutierrez, Victor Repizo, Tony Galofre, Wayne Roadie, and Ted Speros), delivers flatly at best and mumbles forgotten lines to one another at worst.
But Murder at the Exit doesn't merit our scorn. It's only an hour, and when a recent performance was over, cast and crew could hardly wait to get out from behind the curtain to tease audience members both for laughing during their supposedly grisly story and, confusingly, for failing to laugh. It's the kind of show that makes for a great introduction to a drink with all present. And for that, Murder at the Exit has only our gratitude.
Murder at the Exit continues through Aug. 25 at the Actors Studio of San Francisco, 180 Capp St. (at 17th St.) S.F. Admission is $15.