In the second grade, I attended a play at my town’s local church where “The Little Red Hen” was performed by my younger brother and his class of pre-kindergarten students. They sang a few songs that maybe half of the actors knew the lyrics of. I could not comprehend or hear most of the lines that the infants were saying, but I enjoyed this play more than I enjoyed “Murder on the Beantown Express,” Hugo Kessler’s ’19 self-indulgent comedy of unknown plot arcs.
A few of my friends were in the play Kessler wrote, directed, and appeared in, so I had very few expectations coming into it other than I hoped I would enjoy it. Almost immediately, as I read the playbill, my prejudices arose. There was a blurb that recounted Kessler’s process in writing this play. He described that he was hit with inspiration over winter break last year and just had to write this play. I looked around and saw Kessler’s name plastered over a vending machine that I assumed was a prop for the set design. It began to dawn on me what kind of play this would be: Someone who believed they are very funny decided to write a play that highlights how funny they are. I had no idea whether or not this play would be good or not, but it definitely did not put a good taste in my mouth waiting to see if Kessler would live up to his own hype.
Then Kessler stood up from his seat in the audience, thanked us, and said that we were about to see the answer to the question of what would happen when someone died and no one cared. I’m sorry to say that we did not actually watch a plot nearly that interesting. What the next hour and 15 minutes entailed was a performance with actors that seemingly doubted their own understanding of the very show they delivered: a classic story of an unlikely group of people caught in an unusual situation, “Murder on the Beantown Express,” as it is. But even the title of this play does not make that much sense.
It’s explained that “Beantown” is Boston, something I as a West Coast native did not know. However, it’s never explained at all why they use the word Beantown rather than Boston. This was not actually that big of an issue for understanding the show, but rather a testament to much of the jokes and events of the play. Jokes are delivered that sometimes have little to nothing to do with what is going on in the play. Maybe half of the play runs on pop culture references, a very easy way to get laughs, and a form of comedy that requires little thought in its attempts to reach a wide audience. What made them worse was that their inclusion was neither related to anything going on, nor was their comedic delivery well-executed.
Some of the most upsetting running jokes in the play were made between the show’s gay couple. Most of the jokes that either of them made were about how they’re gay, and how they like having sex with each other. It was almost offensive how predictable the jokes were for these characters. They all had some sort of quirk, except for the gay men, and I say gay men because their gender and sexual orientation were their only defining features.
The plot had a very similar problem. Speculation was given as to who committed the murder, but even their theories were convoluted and, we later find out, had nothing at all to do with the murder. There were many moments which had a “this will be explained in due time” attitude about them that were never explained. Like how the detective was actually crazy, and had very bizarre posters on the walls of his department. Or why the old woman talked about wanting to murder people all the time, and was very afraid of her bags being searched.
I was pretty done with “Murder on the Beantown Express” by the end, and I would have been relatively satisfied with what I had seen so far. I did not enjoy it very much, but it had a few redeeming qualities which I will speak about later. But, when the ending came, I could not believe what I was watching. The ending was disconnected from not only the plot, but any notion of sense whatsoever. It turns out there was no original murder, and one of the people on the train worked with the supposed victim to kill a train conductor who apparently deserved to die because of his unsettling Internet history. The whole plan was to get enough media attention so that a misogynistic movie critic would interview the murderer in jail, for some reason. The original victim reveals herself, and she and the murderer kill the movie critic, because of his thoughts on the original victim’s movies (the original victim was a mediocre film director.) If this explanation sounds complicated and confusing, it’s because it was both of these things, for little to no reason.
The most redeeming quality of the play was the acting. The actors did well with what they were given and played the characters to the best of their abilities. Even the unfortunate lack of characterization given to the gay men was handled well by the actors, making one more straight (in a theatrical sense) and the other more eccentric and anxious. The murder-mystery novel writer and the old woman both brought life to the play. The detective, who may have been the most confusedly bizarre character of the whole play, played bizarrely well, and did what he could with what he was given. I was impressed with the acting, and commend them for their adoption of the script.
Overall, “Murder on the Beantown Express” was a sad example of what happens when someone attempts comedy with an unfounded belief that they understand it. However, I would like to praise Kessler for his attempt to write good comedy. Although it had its flaws which were emphasized with a tone of self-appreciation, I respect his obvious love for his own writing. But, if someone is going to make such a strong attempt at something so hard, they must subject themselves to criticism that is as wild as they are ambitious. I hope Kessler keeps writing and learns from this experience, and takes this criticism as a challenge to prove me wrong rather than an attempt to bring him down.