I’ve been reading Not Since Carrie, Ken Mandelbaum’s book about Broadway musical flops. Since I also own Hot Seat, a collection of Frank Rich’s 13 years of theater reviews for the New York Times, I’ve occasionally looked up some of Rich’s reviews of the flops that Mandelbaum discusses. They’re entertaining, often scathing.
Mandelbaum’s book does not discuss Moose Murders, one of the most notorious Broadway flops ever, because it’s a play, not a musical. But Frank Rich reviewed it. I couldn’t find his review online, so I’ve transcribed it from Hot Seat in its entirety. Have fun.
February 23, 1983
From now on, there will always be two groups of theatergoers in this world: those who have seen Moose Murders, and those who have not. Those of us who have witnessed the play that opened at the Eugene O’Neill Theater last night will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic. Tears and booze will flow in equal measure, and there will be a prize awarded to the bearer of the most outstanding antlers. As for those theatergoers who miss Moose Murders — well, they just don’t rate. A visit to Moose Murders is what will separate the connoisseurs of Broadway disaster from mere dilettantes for many moons to come.
The play begins in the exact manner of Whodunnit — itself one of the season’s drearier offerings, though at the time of its opening we didn’t realize how relatively civilized it was. There’s a loud thunderclap, and the curtain rises to reveal an elaborate, two-level, dark wood set. Amusingly designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, the set represents a lodge in the Adirondacks and is profusely decorated with the requisite stuffed moose heads. Though the heads may be hunting trophies, one cannot rule out the possibility that these particular moose committed suicide shortly after being shown the script that trades on their good name.
The first human characters we meet — if “human” is the right word — are “the singing Keenes.” The scantily clad Snooks Keene bumps her backside in the audience’s face and sings “Jeepers Creepers” in an aggressively off-key screech while her blind husband, Howie, pounds away on an electric hand organ. Howie’s plug is soon mercifully pulled by the lodge’s beefy middle-aged caretaker, Joe Buffalo Dance, who wears Indian war paint and braids but who speaks in an Irish brogue.
This loathsome trio is quickly joined by a whole crowd of unappetizing clowns. The wealthy Hedda Holloway, the lodge’s new owner, arrives with her husband, Sidney, a heavily bandaged quadriplegic who is confined to a wheelchair and who is accurately described as “that fetid roll of gauze.” Sidney’s attendant, Nurse Dagmar, wears revealing black satin, barks in Nazi-ese, and likes to leave her patient out in the rain. The Holloway children include Stinky, a drug-crazed hippie who wants to sleep with his mother, and Gay, a little girl in a party dress. Told that her father will always be “a vegetable,” Gay turns up her nose and replies, “Like a lima bean? Gross me out!” She then breaks into a tap dance.
For much of Act 1, this ensemble stumbles about mumbling dialogue that, as far as one can tell, is only improved by its inaudibility. Just before intermission, Stinky breaks out a deck of cards to give the actors, if not the audience, something to do. The lights go out in mid-game, and when they come up again, one of the characters has been murdered. Such is the comatose nature of the production that we’re too busy trying to guess which stiff on stage is the victim to worry about guessing the culprit.
Even Act 1 of Moose Murders is inadequate preparation for the ludicrous depths of Act 2. I won’t soon forget the spectacle of watching the mummified Sidney rise from his wheelchair to kick an intruder, unaccountably dressed in a moose costume, in the groin. This peculiar fracas is topped by the play’s final twist, in which Hedda serves her daughter Gay a poison-laced vodka martini. As the young girl collapses to the floor and dies in the midst of another Shirley Temple-esque buck and wing, her mother breaks into laughter and applause.
The ten actors trapped in this enterprise, a minority of them of professional caliber, will not be singled out here. I’m tempted to upbraid the author, director, and producers of Moose Murders, but surely the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will be after them soon enough.
Moose Murders closed after one performance.
There’s also this enjoyable account.