by Ryan Leeds
I glanced at the titles for this year’s New York Musical Festival. “Do you know what a ‘scythe’ is?” I asked friends, referring to the title of Mark Alan Swanson and Alan Harris’ show, “A Scythe of Time.” My question was met with dumbfounded looks. I googled it and found my answer: It’s the arch shaped sickle that accompanies the grim reaper.
This minor trivia tidbit is one of the few positive experiences that came from a show whose already awkward title could replace the word “scythe” with “waste”; it is a far more accurate description of what audiences will endure.
Based on two short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, How to Write a Blackwood Article and A Predicament, A Scythe of Time takes us to the 1881 world of Gothic London where heavy hitter publisher Blackwood, a macabre Walter Winchell-like personality (P.J. Griffith), runs a publication that prints stories of death experiences. The only caveat is that individuals have to actually kill themselves. Apparently, death articles were a hot commodity back then because Blackwood’s rival, Zenobia (ultra-talented comedic genius Lesli Margherita), has her own publication called the Blue Batch that publishes the same themes.
Zenobia, with the help of Wallace Shawn doppelganger Danny Rutigliano, conspires to write her own article about death, but believes that her writing is clever enough to avoid the actual experience. She plans to write the greatest Blackwood article ever written—until she is accidentally decapitated by the minute hand of a clock tower.
Don’t worry. She’ll still talk and sing. Broadway star Margherita, who was outstanding as Mrs. Wormwood in Matilda and who stole the show in Dames At Sea is forced to spend the rest of her time onstage in box so that only her head appears.
The tone of a A Sycthe of Time is muddy, which is also why it never really works. In some parts, it is dark and horrific. In others, it is dark comedy or melodrama. The sum never adds up to anything cohesive. It might also make for better material as a straight play and not as a musical. Unless the intention of parody is suggested, it’s hard to keep a straight face with a character who is singing while slitting his wrists. Granted, not as hard as a believing in a singing headless editor, but nonetheless, bizarre.
Musically, there’s nothing interesting going on here either. The score sounds like an even cheesier version of a Frank Wildhorn piece with every tune marching anthem-like in a way that insinuates victory in war. Dan Scully’s projection design, however, is one of the highlights. The sketches are perfectly suited for nearly any Poe story.
Swanson and Harris note that they’ve been working on this story for four years. Should they decide to collaborate on another project, it might behoove them to choose lighter material and hone in on a specific tone. The sickle fell upon A Scythe of Time after a limited run at this year’s New York Musical Festival. In this case, it’s a mercy killing.
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.