by Ryan Leeds
Fewer criminals evoke more fear and terror than the infamous Charles Manson. In the summer of 1969, he masterminded nine gruesome murders in California with the aid of his commune “family.” While he didn’t kill any of the victims himself, he was still charged with seven of the deaths. Under Manson’s cult leadership, he convinced his followers that an apocalypse was near and that the murders would expedite such doom. One of his many romantic interests was Susan Atkins, known within the Manson family as “Sadie.”
The horrific events surrounding the case have been fertile ground for documentaries and dramatic works. Most notably was the best-selling 1974 novel, Helter Skelter, written by prosecutors Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. It was later turned into a 1976 television film of the same name. Currently, the White Horse Theater Company is re-imagining possible conversations about Manson and his accomplice, Susan Atkins (Carlotta Brentan) in You Are Perfect.
Cyndy A. Marion’s play takes place in Atkins’ prison cell days before she is about to testify against Manson (Brad Burgess). Here, she is questioned and encouraged by a spiritual leader (Nancy Wolfe), who attempts to guide her toward a path of righteousness. Flashbacks between Atkins and Manson occur and, due to the pathological lies shared by all three characters, we are often questioning their truths. Still, we know that these characters actually committed these heinous acts. Atkins passed away in prison in 2009, and Manson continues to serve life imprisonment.
Given that scenario, we should be on the edge of our seats, shuddering at the unspeakable killing spree. Yet Marion, who both wrote and directed the piece, leaves us with little more than tepid interest in her subjects, due mostly in part to a rudimentary script and adequate acting. Brentan turns in an earnest performance, but lacks a sense of passion towards both her lover and the sacrifices she is willing to make for him. Wolfe, who originally portrayed Atkins in the original Helter Skelter, drives most of the dialogue, but it often feels forced. Brentan’s interpretation of Manson is, at times, chilling but is written and acted with singular dimension. Certainly psychopaths have more complexity than that.
The Manson murders remain a compelling and fascinating study of true crime, but, as evidenced by the gentleman who was stretched out and sound asleep in the front row within the first 30 minutes of the play, You Are Perfect misses the mark.
You Are Perfect
The Workshop Theater Company
312 West 46th Street, 4th Floor
Through February 20
The original trailer for Helter Skelter
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.