The Business of Murder is a 1981 play by Richard Harris, not the late actor but a prolific British television writer who specialized in crime and detective teleplays. TV shows can open up and go on location, but plays are necessarily limited in their settings, unless the producers have a large budget or a very imaginative director and audience. Harris makes the most of the constricted theater, capitalizing on the claustrophobic atmosphere in an increasingly tense cat-and-mouse game. And the finest thing about Harris' script is that we're never quite sure who is the cat and who is the mouse.
The very first images on stage are of a London police detective named Hallett snooping around an apartment. Perhaps he's on to something. But perhaps not, because he is soon joined by the flat's owner, a fussy, nervous fellow named Stone, who seems to want his son to inform on some drug thugs he's involved with. But the son fails to materialize, and Hallett takes his leave; Stone, alone, very methodically prepares for something devious.
Soon he receives a visit from a television writer named Dee, something of a stand-in for Harris himself. Dee has quickly become a popular and financially successful writer of detective scripts, and Stone has invited her to see his dying wife about a story idea she has. But like the son, the wife never materializes, either; instead, Stone expounds upon the subject of murder: its motivations, or lack of motivations; its techniques; those individuals, like police detectives and TV writers, who make money in the murder business without having to commit the crime themselves; and even a bit about the plight of the homicide victims' survivors.
It's a very talky, philosophical scene, one sure to bore the deerstalker cap off of anyone who wants to get on with looking for clues and spotting inconsistent alibis. But Harris has set up a great many clues and inconsistencies in these first scenes; you merely have to listen carefully to these characters talk, instead of spotting Col. Mustard in the conservatory with a rope.
It's the second act where the tension escalates, but even through most of this half of the play, questions continue to mount. Has a murder already taken place, or is it about to? If it hasn't happened yet, can it be stopped? And who, exactly, is the victim?
Victimization and revenge are the true subjects of The Business of Murder, it gradually becomes clear, but even in those rare moments when you think you've figured out exactly what's going on, you're never sure that you won't be thrown off by some twist or reversal a moment later.
Rigorously directed by James Blair, IT's production keeps every prop, every element of blocking, every tic of character precisely in place. Not that anything seems mechanical; it's just as meticulous as a murderer's plan.
Douglas Mitchell is especially fine as Stone. He passes himself off as a finicky, fretful, overgrown mouse in the first scene with Hallett, but when interacting with Dee, he grows utterly creepy in his intensity and slightly overbearing manner.
He's well-matched by the husband-and-wife team of Harold and Maedell Dixon as, respectively, Hallett and Dee. Harold's somewhat lower-class cop is cocksure and just arrogant enough to chuckle at his own little jokes, yet he's also watchful, and the actor delivers a particularly alert, controlled performance. Likewise, Maedell's Dee is a bit high-strung but not out of control. If there's anything to criticize in her performance, it's that the vodka her character swills seems to have little effect; Dee's nerves are manipulated solely by Stone, an external rather than internal force. Yet the shifting dynamic between Mitchell and Maedell Dixon in their first scene together is so finely modulated that it's hard to complain.
The actors also know how to find the occasional humor in their characters and their situation, but perhaps the funniest line is an accident of casting: Maedell Dixon must say to her husband, Harold, "Don't tell me what I can and cannot do--I'm not your wife."
Nothing else happens by accident in this production of The Business of Murder; every element is as fastidious as the script's own intrigue.