It’s difficult to imagine repeating yourself nearly 12,000 times—unless you’re Catherine Russell. Russell is the star of the smash hit off Broadway play Perfect Crime, which is now entering its 30th year. At the time of this writing, she has missed only 4 performances, earning her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Housed at the Anne L. Bernstein Center, it is the longest running play in the history of New York theater, on or off Broadway. Russell plays Margaret Thorne Brent, a Connecticut psychiatrist accused of killing her husband and she has been with the project from its’ inception. The Broadway Blog recently talked to her about this stalwart that has been thrilling audiences since 1987.
BB: What is about the show and you that endures?
CR: I’m a proponent of the off-Broadway economic model. This has a small cast and one set, so the costs are relatively low. I think people really like thrillers too. It’s a genre that people understand and the title lets people know exactly what to expect. Because crime dramas are so prevalent on TV, this is something that they recognize when they choose live entertainment. The ticket prices are less expensive and seats are much closer because of the intimate space. Our Times Square location mixed with the 30-year history is also an endorsement.
In terms of my involvement, I was in a theater company called the Actors Collective. It was at 39 Grove Street. We did a season of plays with Warren Manzi as the artistic director. Manzi told us that he had written a play that had been in his drawer for seven years. It started as a showcase that ran for 16 performances, and then it moved Off Broadway and has moved nine times. I never expected that it would run as long as it has.
BB: And you’re not only the star of the show, but you also manage the theater yourself, produce the musical The Fantasticks (housed in the same complex), and you teach college English and Theater as well. Where do you get all this energy?
CR: I really like doing the play and I like stability. In a weird way, I’ve been able to carve out that stability in an unstable business. For me, those two hours, eight times a week is wonderful. I’m doing a show that I have fun doing and I try to find something different in every performance. I try to use gravitas from my own life experience and draw on that.
BB: Well, your pep definitely comes across in the performance. Do you exercise or is this show your workout?
CR: (laughs) I can do a lot of pushups, I’ll say that. I can do about 180-200—not bad for a 60-year-old!
BB: Wow! You’re like the younger female version of Jack Palance!
BB: Do you ever think you’d like to do other roles, or are you satisfied in this one?
CR: Fortunately, I’ve been able to work around my schedule and I’ve done some work in films and television. I tend to get offered roles similar to the character I play in Perfect Crime, which is nice, but it would be great to have an opportunity to play someone completely different.
BB: Do you foresee an end point for your involvement in the show or will you be with it for as long as it runs?
CR: Quite honestly, I’m not sure. The fact that I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records is a selling point, but I certainly don’t feel as though I’m the only one who can play the role.
BB: Has there been anything unexpected, funny and/or traumatic that has happened in the 30 years of doing the show?
CR: Everything that could possibly go wrong has gone wrong. I used to bring my dogs to the theater and one of them walked onstage during intermission and began eating the props. Things have broken; guns haven’t been placed on stage. We used to have a glass table in the first scene and the actor who gets shot accidentally shattered it. I’ve fallen down the stairs. My dress has fallen off. We once had a kid in the second row projectile vomit onto the stage. The first row leaned forward and dodged it, but we just kept going.
BB: Have you thought about putting your experience of this show into a memoir?
CR: Not really. It may be interesting only to theater people. I’m not being false modest when I say this, but my life is pretty boring.
BB: I think what puts you on the map is that you have done this production for so long and it’s a huge achievement. Your work ethic is extremely impressive.
CR: Thank you but isn’t it sad that we value people who show up to work every day. I could take a vacation if I wanted to. I mean, it’s not like this is a prison, but I just like to work a lot.
BB: Has there been talk of licensing this show to other markets?
CR: I’ve always thought it would do well in London, or as a vehicle for former television stars, but it’s on my to do list.
BB: Any pre- or post-show rituals?
CR: The guys watch Jeopardy, I run the box office and take tickets for The Fantasticks and then run upstairs to do the show. Afterwards, I take out the garbage.
BB: So you go from the not so glamorous, to the glamorous, back to the not so glamorous.
CR: Yes. It keeps thing in perspective. I don’t fantasize about driving off in a limo at night. I love being part of it all. I look out and see the lights on Broadway and I’m glad to be a tiny part of the theater world in New York. I’m really grateful for that.
Anne L. Bernstein Theater at The Theater Center
1627 Broadway, NYC
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.