The story of Mark David Chapman, the murderer of John Lennon, has been told many times, in books, movies, news specials, and television documentaries, since he fired those shots outside the Dakota in 1980. Ross Howard’s new play Two of Us delves deep into the Chapman’s disturbed mind and explores the dynamic of his relationship with his wife during the two years or so leading up to the assassination.
As Howard tells it in this well-acted production from the New Light Theater Project, two main forces acted on Chapman (Chris Bert, in a dynamically jittery performance) as he spiraled downward into obsession and murder. One was the evangelical Christianity he shared with his wife Gloria (a sharply focused, emotionally powerful performance by Vivian Chiu), the travel agent he married in 1979. Chapman’s anxieties and perceptions of unfairness and betrayal grated against the sureties of the faith, but his wife clung ever more desperately to religion as Chapman became more and more irrational.
The other force was his metastasizing anger and resentment. Spurred on by Holden Caulfield’s rebellion against “phonies” in J.D. Salinger’s classic novel The Catcher in the Rye, Chapman began to focus his hatred on one of his musical heroes. The ex-Beatle who preached “give peace a chance” had turned out to be, as Chapman saw it, “just a rich bastard like all the others.” “I can’t continue being a nobody,” the killer-to-be cries, an emotion that gets twisted into “the phony must die.”
In scenes that skip around in time, the play imagines in detail Mark and Gloria’s relationship and religious milieu; his journey to New York, fraught with fury, confusion, and self-doubt; and finally the murder itself. To dramatize the couple’s respective inner conflicts, Howard creates parallel imaginary characters.
Chapman’s is a sort of servant/first minister of a fantasy dictatorship, a snappily dressed Englishman named Robert who visits him periodically to argue fruitlessly against the ruler’s worst impulses. Later, in New York, Robert reappears as a good ol’ boy from Chapman’s southern hometown, now with the opposite task of goading the man toward his violent destiny after Lennon’s kindness during a brief encounter raised doubts. (Christopher Daftsios is very powerful in this dual-ish role.)
Gloria’s imaginary companion is the biblical Sarah (Janae Mitchell, regal in a mostly one-note role). The matriarch can offer no more than the bland advice that “only God can save him” but Gloria should do her part by submitting to her husband and “speak[ing] to him with humility and respect.”
This is all interesting stuff, both historically and psychologically. Yet it doesn’t quite fill up the space and time of the drama. The actors, including Lea McKenna-Garcia and Dan Fenaughty, both versatile in multiple smaller roles, do fine work. Sarah Norris directs skillfully. Amusing song-and-dance numbers slide the action effortlessly from scene to scene. A mute baptism scene works beautifully. The set and costumes are effective and spot-on. (The mauve slacks on Fenaughty’s preacher-type character alone should win costume designer Genevieve V. Beller some sort of prize).
But with all that solidly creative work, the themes don’t expand enough to fully inhabit or fully enliven the action. The script makes its points repeatedly, a couple of scenes go on too long, and I was left feeling only partially engaged by all the good work happening on stage.
Two of Us is worth seeing for its excellent production and performances and its well-crafted, affecting dialogue, and as a reminder of how fragile is the human spirit and how easily our natures can go wrong. The story of Mark David Chapman and the murder of John Lennon continues to fascinate. Its antagonist and protagonist both exemplify the deadly human fallibilities that neither religious faith, artistic generosity, nor supposedly cathartic violence can heal. It’s at the Access Theatre, 380 Broadway, as part of the Ross Howard Festival highlighting this talented playwright’s work, until Nov. 12. For tickets and info visit the New Light Theater Project website.