It might not have quite the longevity of MOUSETRAP (Agatha Christie's mystery has been entertaining London audiences for 60 years), but on April 18, PERFECT CRIME will have been hoodwinking theatergoers for a quarter of a century.
Despite the long run, leading lady Catherine Russell has yet to take a sick day off since the play's debut. The asterisk to her perfect record includes an absence to attend her sister's wedding.
"I've never missed a show because of illness," she said while perched on a bar stool in the theater's lobby. "I did take off for my sister's wedding. But that shouldn't count because my understudy got sick and I had to rush back to perform that evening."
The petite Russell, 56, dressed in an LBD with a peach scarf and heels, is energized each time she steps foot on the stage, she said as she sipped a Coke. Russell has performed the role of Margaret Thorne Brent more than 10,000 times since the play's Off Broadway opening on April 18, 1987. She figures that amounts to about two full years on stage.
This tidy whodunit has earned its accolades thanks to dead-on timing and mysterious twists. PERFECT CRIME is a crowd favorite, peppered with international as well as local audiences, she said. And they keep coming to this intimate space literally off Broadway, a fact that Russell is quite grateful for.
The theater is within shouting distance of Times Square and with only 199 seats – at bargain prices compared with Broadway blockbusters – each performance is relatively easy to fill, she said.
Without giving anything away, she summarized the bones of the story.
"First of all, it's a thriller, and people enjoy a fun mystery," she said. "Look at all the television shows on that are about murder – reality crime shows and whodunits. People love this stuff."
Audiences will get to watch a strong character who may have used poor judgment to get what she wants. "She gets smacked and a gun is in play and a lot of mysteries are played out," she said.
After so much time spent delivering the same lines, she has a simple strategy as the play approaches its third decade. "It's like being a trained seal," she said. "And I embrace that. I'm the Cal Ripken of theater. And I'm happy to be employed and grateful to be in a place where I can continue to act."
Of course, live theater wouldn't be challenging without the unexpected. "Anything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong in this show," she said. "One time a chair caught on fire in the middle of a scene. Now we keep a spritzer bottle of water hidden nearby."
"Another time, when I got slapped I heard this guy sitting in the front row start to yell, 'Yeah, slap her! Shoot her!' which was a little distracting. Then there was this kid …" She paused just a second, but continued. "There was this kid in the second row who was overcome with projectile vomiting right onto the people in the front row. That wasn't so funny at the time," she said.
During another performance her beloved dog Clementine escaped from Russell's dressing room, ran onstage and started eating the coffee cake that was key to the scene. "When people started laughing, Clementine turned around, saw the audience clapping and laughing and started barking at them." Another ham was born, she said.
So far Russell has "shot" 89 different actors and kissed 57 others. More than 83,000 "bullets" have been fired onstage and more than 5,000 coffee cakes served. The play has also helped unemployed actors looking for a steady gig. Over 25 years, 237 actors have joined the ensemble.
But there have been serious obstacles along the way, she said. In 2005, the building that housed the play was sold for $100 million and PERFECT CRIME was about to become homeless with only six weeks' notice to vacate. Instead of packing it in, Russell was determined that the show would go on – just in a different venue. So she became a building developer and found an appropriate site not far from the original space.
Russell took on the role of general manager in what is now the Snapple Theater Center, a 20,000-square-foot entertainment complex in the heart of Times Square. "I supervised the plumbing, electricity and even helped lug 400 theater seats into the space," she said. THE FANTASTICKS, the beloved musical that also has a tenured history in the city, entertains audiences on another floor in the building.
She recalled the, uh, charms of the previous occupants. "This place had been a strip joint and offered assorted adult entertainment. The second floor was a male strip joint with naked men, and on the third floor were naked women," she recalled. "I had to take out the runway. You would hear all kinds of songs, and a favorite was "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," she noted, rolling her eyes.
Asked how she keeps her stamina and maintains good health Russell smiled. "I'm a Christian Scientist and just don't believe in getting sick," she replied. So she must have a healthy diet, one would think. "I live on Snickers, Coke and pizza," she admitted. And when she's not performing or fulfilling her general manager duties, she can be found teaching at two universities: Baruch and NYU.
Russell is also building two new theaters in Times Square and working on a documentary on the 65-year history of Off Broadway. Should be a thriller.