#51 Perfect Crime
January 14, 2016
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Every night, Catherine Russell puts on a wig, picks up a gun, and defies the logic of Yelp.
Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Our ad music is by Build Buildings.
PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ: So a couple years ago, a friend was visiting from out of town and she took me to see this play. It was called Perfect Crime. All she really knew about it was that it was a crime thriller.
So we went to this Off-Broadway theater where the stage was set up like an office in an old detective story. Big wood bookshelves, an old persian rug. We sit down and the play begins.
This is a recording of the first scene. A man is sitting in the officer listening to a reel-to-reel recorder, and then a woman barges onto the stage. She’s wearing a wig, but you can’t tell if you’re supposed to know that it’s a wig or not. And you don’t have much time to wonder, because she immediately pulls out a gun and shoots the guy.
And so begins the most bewildering couple hours of theater I’ve ever seen in my life.
The play has the rhythm of a detective story, people are finding stuff out and clues are revealed and accusations are made, but sitting there watching it, I could not follow anything. Which meant I didn’t know if the play was over my head or really just bad.
ALEX: So PJ made me go see this play, he actually made me go see it with our producer Phia Bennin, and it is pretty much as bizarre as he describes it. I kept leaning over to her and going like, “Do you understand what’s going on?” and she would lean back and say, “No.” And so I looked on Yelp, and the internet feels the same way as I do about this play. Here are a couple of the reviews that I read on Yelp:
“First, the pros. The seats have ample leg room and the sets aren’t bad for a one set play. That's everything good about this show.”
And then, here’s another one:
“At the end of the play the audience was so stunned that we didn't know we were supposed to clap until one of the actors took a bow. The applause was then muted, out of pity, and mixed with laughter as we realized that this awful experience was over.”
PJ: So, I should say I think Yelp reviews are maybe my least favorite part of the internet. They tend to be written in this voice that’s like mean and picky and just finds fault in everything. But even though I don’t like Yelp reviews or online reviews at all for that matter, I know that they’re very powerful. Bad Yelp reviews can destroy somebody’s business. And so it is crazy to me that anything could be so hated online and still survive. Particularly something that relies on new people going to see it again and again and again.
But, my first clue that Perfect Crime might exist somehow magically outside the laws of the universe as I have understood it up to this point, came when I met the star of the play, Catherine Russell.
I have never met anyone like her.
This is how she reacted when I asked her about the bad reviews that I had found on the internet.
CATHERINE RUSSELL: I’m pretty optimistic, and I’m happy when I get up in the morning, so I can’t really make a judgment about other people’s lives. If they want to gonna judge me there’s nothing I can do about it.
PJ: I guess I hadn't understood, like, I was... like the Yelp page, it had like a lower star rating than the Yelp page for Rikers Island. Like, it was like, Rikers had two and a half and I think you guys had one and a half.
CATHERINE: I mean, you know. It is what it is. We're still here. People are buying tickets.
PJ: And this is what is actually crazy about Perfect Crime. Perfect Crime has been running, nonstop, for 28 years. It is the longest running play in New York City.
And Catherine Russell who stars as sharp-tongued psychiatrist Margaret Thorne Brent, holds the Guinnesss World Record for doing the same performance more times than anybody else in history.
CATHERINE: April 18 1987, it was our first performance
PJ: And what, as someone who was two years old in 1987, like what was happening in 1987?
CATHERINE: How lovely of you to point that out! At least you were alive. Usually people were not alive. There were no cell phones, really, people didn't have cell phones, no DNA testing, really. Certainly no dvds yet, it was a different time.
PJ: So what is going on here? How does perfect crime survive?
LONNY PRICE: Hi, is this PJ?
PJ: Yeah, is this Lonny?
LONNY: Yes, it is. Hi, how are you?
PJ: This is Lonny Price, he’s a longtime Broadway guy, he’s been a writer, an actor, a director. He knows theater. And Lonny said the fact that Perfect Crime stays up is especially surprising because theater is even more expensive than most people realize, like, even shows that critics love, that audiences seem to love, close all the time.
LONNY: Most shows fail. Most. Most. It must be ninety percent or something, most fail. Failure is, is you're inches from failure at all times. It's the odd thing that's a hit.
PJ: This play is not a hit. Reply All saw it on three different nights, once during the weekend. And we never saw the theater more than a quarter full. So how does it make enough money to run? Lonny did the math.
LONNY: So the the, if it's four characters, one set, so that means it doesn't have a lot of stage hands that it employs. You know, I mean, I don't know if the actors are making 600 dollars a week, maybe 800 dollars a week, maybe less. So say maybe their entire budget for salaries is seven thousand dollars? A week? So, depending on the deal they have with the theater and if they have a lease on the theater, they don't have to sell very many tickets.
You know one would think looking at it, it's probably the cheapest show in New York to run, one would think.
PJ: Lonny said this could work, but they’d have to be scrappy. And Catherine, it turns out, is scrappy as hell.
CATHERINE: A guy came in. He didn't like Perfect Crime, I think, and he complained about it and he tried to take money from the THE guys who were selling the concessions, He was like really belligerent and getting in his face, trying to like literally say I want my money back, and trying to grab the money. He was a total asshole. And I got right in his face and I said, “What’s the problem here, buddy? You saw the play you don’t get your money back. Get outta here!”
PJ: But why do all that work for a play that’s so confusing? When you leave the theater, you’re handed a 17 point frequently asked questions list about the story that you just watched. It addresses questions like: “Who killed whom?” and “What was the painting?”
Catherine did not write this play, so why has she decided to devote her life to keeping it running?
LONNY: She's doing the same play every night. Eight performances a week. Can you imagine saying the same lines every night for all those years?
PJ: It makes my stomach hurt.
LP: Yeah. It's terrifying. It's terrifying. I mean most actors, you know, if they do a year in something they want to kill themselves. You know, I mean they go through periods of, “Oh I'm having a really bad couple months,” and, “Oh it's a little bit better,” but years?!
PJ: Catherine probably wouldn’t put it this way, but from my perspective, it seems like those years doing Perfect Crime have cost her. For instance when she started the play, there was a guy she was seeing.
CATHERINE: I was engaged to somebody and I think he got pretty disgusted and said, he said, “Perfect Crime ruined his life.”
PJ: What was that, like how was it ruining his life at the time?
CATHERINE: Oh, because it's no fun being married to an actress who does eight shows a week. You have, I, you have no weekends to go away. You can't go out on date night on a Friday or Saturday night. You can't go up, out with other couples or go to the movies. Like, I'm always working I get home at 11 o'clock on Saturday night
PJ: And would he come to the play?
CATHERINE: A couple of times maybe, and then, and then we broke up like probably after a year and a half or two years.
PJ: Catherine doesn’t take vacations. She doesn’t take sick days. She doesn’t miss shows. There was no performance on 9/11, but only because it happened to be their day off. They were back the day after. And the day that Catherine’s mom died, she found out after a matinee showing of Perfect Crime. She still did the evening show.
Catherine says that she gets her work ethic from her Dad. He was a lawyer who died while Catherine was still pretty young; she was just 20. She idolized him and he loved her, but he was a tough critic. In college, when she tried out for Streetcar Named Desire and got a callback for the part of Stella, she phoned him with the good news. And his first question was why she hadn’t gotten the role of Blanche. It was always like that.
CATHERINE: I mean he was like, “Get straight A’s.” You’d get straight A’s. “Why not an A plus?” If you get an A plus. “Why not all A plusses? It was like, what do they call it the tiger mom? He was like that. And he really instilled in us, no matter what you do do it well.
PJ: Catherine keeps a real picture of her Dad on the stage. It’s been there the whole time the play’s run. And she says that he’d be proud of her. Because even though, according to the internet, Perfect Crime is a 1.5 star play, she thinks of it as a success. Most people wouldn’t be able to keep a play going for years and years and years.
This is not how actors usually define success. It feels weird to be a performer and not be a crowd-pleaser. Catherine told me her least favorite part of the performing is the curtain call, at the end. When you come out and everybody claps for you. Who needs a bunch of strangers telling you you’re good?
I will tell you who needs it. When I was talking to Lonny, he happened to mention, just offhandedly, that he likes Reply All as a podcast.
Lonny: Take care. Oh by the way I love the show.
PJ: Oh my God, thank you!
Lonny: Are you kidding adore it.
ALEX: I can’t tell you how much I love that piece of tape. It says everything you need to know about you about you as a human being.
PJ: Oh my God, thank you!
Hold on, let’s just play it one more time. Just so that people can soak up every millisecond of it.
PJ: No one needs to soak up any milliseconds of anything.
AG: Here we go.
PJ: Oh my god, thank you!
AG: Oh it’s so, oh it’s beautiful.
PJ: It is the sound of a person who feeds off human validation finding a new source.
ALEX: I, I mean, if I’m being honest, I am totally the same way. I, like my favorite website, Twitter, is basically just a game where you try and see how many stars of approval you can get from people on the internet. I mean you and me just had a 20 minute conversation about whether we should respond to someone who said something mean about the show on Twitter or whether we should just be strong and confident enough people to let it go.
PJ: No no it wasn’t even that. It was whether it would, whether it would make us look crazy to yell at someone or not. Like it wasn’t like “whether we should be healthy” it was whether we should try to look healthy or enjoy looking mad.
AG: And then PJ was like, “Well, how bout I just hate fave him.”
PJ: Which I actually still think we should do. We spent a year of our lives obsessed with trying to get more followers than each other on Twitter and I commissioned a musician named Matt Farley to write a song telling people not to follow you
MATT FARLEY: [singing]
How ‘bout a bunch of tweets of pictures of cats
No no! Of course you don’t want anything like that.
Follow PJ, don’t follow Alex!
Follow PJ, don’t follow Alex!
Follow PJ, don’t follow Alex!
Follow PJ, don’t follow Alex!
PJ: Okay, so if I had gotten to choose the personality I was born with, I probably would’ve been somebody who cares less what other people think. But, on the other hand, if you are born with this affliction, performing in public kind of seems like the the right job. Because the idea is, you make something, you look at people’s responses, if they don’t like it, it drives you crazy, you try to make better things, and somewhere in that cycle you hopefully make good entertainment. And that is basically what made the whole conversation with Catherine so confusing, is that I assumed that she was the same as us. And so no matter how many times I reminded her that some people, many people in fact, don’t like her play, I could never make her care.
CATHERINE: It’s a confusing play. Some people really like that some people don’t. There’s not one play that everyone in the world is going to love.
PJ: But this seems to be a play that a lot of people don't love.
CATHERINE: But people like it, too. What else can I say? Other people have liked it.
PJ: Right, but you could, if you wanted to you could do a different play.
CATHERINE: People would hate that, too. People. . .my favorite play is “Three Sisters” by Chekhov. I love that play. Lots of people don’t like that play.
PJ: But a lot of people like that play.
CATHERINE: Sure, but I mean I should find another play that more people will like? I, you know, I mean, how would I do that? Why would I… Take a poll from all the people who said horrible things about Perfect Crime and say would you like me to do another play? “No! We hate you and the play!” You can’t live your life trying to make everybody happy. I, I try to make the people I care about happy, okay. But complete strangers, I try to make them happy, but if I can’t, I let go.
PJ: Our producer, Phia Bennin, asked Catherine a question that had not occurred to me to ask.
PHIA BENNIN: Is it really good?
CATHERINE: I have no idea.
PHIA: So you don't feel like this is the best play that's ever been written and therefore-
CATHERINE: No it's definitely not the best play that's ever been written. No. I mean there are great great great plays; This is not one of them. It’s fun to do. My mother said it was the stupidest play she'd ever seen in her life.
PJ: Wait, what?
CATHERINE: Well that's my mother. She said, “Yeah it's a stupid play. Everything happens off stage.” I was like, this is play that's employed your daughter.
PJ: Catherine’s not just the star of Perfect Crime, she does pretty much everything at the theater. This is her handing people tickets at the box office moments before she’s supposed to go on stage.
CATHERINE: Hi, can I help you?
GUEST: Herschlag, three tickets.
CATHERINE: You have great blue eyes, do people tell you that?
GUEST: Not lately.
CATHERINE: I’m definitely not hitting on you. You just have beautiful eyes. There you go.
CATHERINE: I run this theater so I take out the garbage, and if somebody throws up I help clean it up and you know if the toilet's stopped up we stop. . . I like doing all of that.
PJ: She starts her day at 5 a.m. She’s answering e-mails. She’s doing press requests. She’s booking actors. She’s talking to sponsors. She is never not moving. When we were done talking, I asked her if she could just sit still for one minute while I recorded the sound of the empty theater.
PJ in THEATER: So we, just, so literally have to record a minute of room tone.
She looked so uncomfortable. We actually had to start over because Catherine could not sit still.
She’d taken her shoes off during the interview and she started trying to quietly put them back on.
I think it feels weird for Catherine to sit still because she literally never does. And in fact, Catherine says that the play itself--the thing that we’re obsessed with and the world sees and the internet hates--that play is just a little sliver of her day. It’s her downtime.
CATHERINE: So it’s, getting on stage is a breeze.
PJ: Right, cuz it’s. . .
CATHERINE: It's actually really good.
PJ: And nobody's allowed to like ping you for anything.
CATHERINE: No. I mean, they can't, I'm on stage for most of the time in the show so like other than checking my email, like, once or twice during the show. I can't, there's no way I have time to email anybody or text anybody, except at intermission.
CATHERINE: So it’s like, it’s like blissful actually to have that time. Does that make sense?
PJ: Yeah, that totally makes sense.
CATHERINE: And the first thing I get to do is shoot somebody six times. So whatever crap is happening to me during the day I'm like bang bang bang bang bang. It's great. It lets out whatever crap is there, it's like healthy right? It's good. I let it all out.
Tonight, Catherine will do performance 11,792 of Perfect Crime.
CATHERINE: I mean, I know my place in the universe. I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records and I’m above the world's tallest horse. I swear to God. There's a picture of the horse but I don't get a picture.
PJ: While the rest of us spend our days scurrying around on earth, wondering if we’re smart or pretty or talented enough,Catherine Russell, she is like the sun.
It rises every day and powers itself. It doesn’t read its Yelp reviews.
There’s too much to do. There’s not enough time to think about stopping.
PJ: Coming up after the break, literally since the dawn of time people have asked each other one question, which is, of course, “Are there any other good podcasts to listen to?” We will talk to the person who has solved this. Stick around.
ALEX: PJ, one more thing.
PJ: Yes, Alex.
ALEX: You know know our buddy Matt Farley?
ALEX: He’s written 18,000 songs; they’re all on Spotify.
ALEX: I asked him to write a song about this week’s show.
ALEX: Yeah, do you wanna hear it?
PJ: Yes, I do.
MATT: [singing, again]
Catherine Russell is just like the sun
gettin’ up every mornin’ to do what she’s done
pretty much every day in about the same way,
but instead of heatin’ up the world she’s in a play.
It’s called a Perfect Crime.
Every week, she performs it eight times.
And she doesn’t get the blues
while reading the reviews
on Yelp or in the news
cuz she’s got too much to do.
She’s not of the generation
that needs constant validation.
She’s happy in her station
working hard on her creation.
And one last thing.
Reply All listeners you should follow Alex Goldman on Twitter.
He requested that I sing as PJ did before
and I’ll happily comply cuz I always want more
work to do. I want to keep at it. I want to hustle.
Just like the main topic of this song, Catherine Russell.
ALEX: So, I guess that the take away from that song. . .
PJ: I don’t think there is one. Art is so hard to interpret.
ALEX: Is follow Alex Goldman on Twitter. It’s @. . .
PJ: It’s @PJVOGT.
ALEX: agoldmund. A-G-O-L-D-M-U-N-D. I really wish that Matt hadn’t said that I’d, that he’s doing it cuz I specifically asked him to. I wish that he had said. . .
PJ: You wish that he had lied. You wish he had done fabulist song journalism.
PJ: You have no standards.
ALEX: I have no standards for him. I have plenty of standards for myself.
PJ: Tell me about some of your standards.
ALEX: I mean I won’t murder anybody.
PJ: Welcome back to the show. So Gimlet has a new podcast. It's starting next week. And it's called Sampler. The host is named Brittany Luse. And we brought her into the studio to talk about it.
ALEX: Hi, Brittany.
BRITTANY LUSE: Hi, PJ and Alex. How are you guys?
ALEX: We’re pretty good.
PJ: Seven out of 10
Brittany: Seven out of 10 is good. That’s a solid C.
PJ: So the way that Sampler works is that Brittany goes out and listens to the tens of thousands of podcasts that are out there. Many of that basically no one has ever heard. And she finds the best, weirdest stuff, and she collects it all and she brings it back and often she will talk to the people who, who make the stuff.
So what kinds of things have you found so far?
BRITTANY: Oh my god. Well. . .
PJ: I feel like you're like, you're like, you’re like one of those magical traveling salesmen. You just like sat down like a dusty old suitcase and then you’re gonna pull out something crazy.
ALEX: You'll open it up and it'll be, there'll be like a light shining out of it at you.
PJ: Yeah. So wait. What have you got?
BRITTANY: Okay, so um, I kind of know a lot about professional wrestling. Cuz it's kind of like Passions or like General Hospital, with people pretending to play a sport in a way.
ALEX: Yeah, that, it's there's real drama to it.
BRITTANY: Oh, the fighting is fake, but the drama is real.
PJ: Okay so who is the best, like, wrestler, talker, like, podcast person.
BRITTANY: One of the greatest ever to do it. Stone Cold Steve Austin.
ANNOUNCER: Stone Cold! You're going to face Yokozuna. Can you give us any last minute comment before that matchup?
STEVE AUSTIN: Yeah, my last minute comment is I'll whip your ass just as soon as I would him. So why don't you just back off right now.
PJ: Greatest in what sense?
BRITTANY: To ever professionally wrestle. I was about to get emotional. Jesus Christ. And he's like so good on mic.
PJ: But he looks like somebody's mom's new boyfriend.
ALEX: He does. He looks like Dr. Phil a little bit. And he's like a muscle bound Dr. Phil.
BRITTANY: But like, that's kind of next level, though.
PJ: What do you mean?
BRITTANY: To have the knowledge and the weird gentility of Dr. Phil but then also be the person who can get, like, get a microphone in panties and like knee pads and and say, like, "Austin 3:16 said, 'I just whipped your ass.'" That's really deep.
Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. So, the name of the podcast is "The Steve Austin Show - Unleashed." Interview show.
ALEX: Ooo. . .
Yeah, isn’t that, it sounds kind of dangerous, right? It’s in interview show, but my favorite parts are when he gives updates on, like, I guess like his his Texas homestead, which he calls the Broken Skull Ranch. So I'm going to play you guys a clip from there right now.
STEVE AUSTIN: You know when I met my wife, you know, and we were there together for, you know, however long we were together. And then, you know, finally we got married or whatever. She said, "You know, have you ever had a facial?"
And I'm like, "What the fuck are you talking about? A facial?" I said, "Hell no I ain't never had no facial."
So she said, "Well, you know, before you go do this movie we need to get you a facial because you're going to have a lot of closeups and stuff like that."
When a guy like me, from South Texas, you know when you think of a facial you think, "Yeah, yeah you're laying there on a little table and they, you know, rub some little shit on you and say, lather up your face and wash your face, you know. Then they kinda rub you down a little bit and send you out the door."
No. That's not exactly what happens in this kind of a facial. The kind of facials that my wife wanted me to get was an extraction. This is when a highly trained professional squeezes all the little fuckin' black heads and shit outta your face. And when you're a gym rat like i am and a guy who hunts and fishes and uses a chainsaw and builds and destroys shit and gets dirty and grimey and just does what men do, I got a lotta fuckin' blackheads. Believe it or not.
Oh, God dang. You know what? The second time I went I ate like three Vicodin. I mean, son of a bitch. And never go to a meeting after you've had an extraction. Because I remember right after I had a facial one time, my fuckin' beak was swollen up. It was red. I looked like I had that whiskey nose. Which wasn't the case. I just had the shit beat out of me getting a facial.
ALEX: I gotta say, I really think that it is so sweet that Steve Austin was game enough to go get a facial twice.
PJ: I think that he actually saying that he got them a bunch of times. Like the way he's like, "Because I hunt and fuckin', like, beat the shit out of bears and shit like that." Like he, somehow he builds the argument for him getting a facial out of his excessive masculinity.
PJ: It's like so great.
BRITTANY: There's this amazing episode where he did not have a guest for his Unleashed podcast and he was recording in Mexico. So he just, like, recorded 45 minutes of having like an intense standoff with a fly.
STEVE AUSTIN: Ya know, look at this. I just had a fly land on my fuckin' microphone. Boy if I could talk to this motherfucker. I could ask him some fuckin' questions.
STEVE AUSTIN as FLY: Then why don't you go ask me questions you son of a bitch.
STEVE AUSTIN: Fly, is that you talking to me or have I gone absolutely fuckin' crazy.
STEVE AUSTIN as FLY: Yeah, it's me. And don't call me Fly. Call me Mr. Fly, motherfucker.
BRITTANY: And it goes on like this for like several minutes! And then Steve ends up wrestling the fly.
STEVE AUSTIN as ANNOUNCER: And with both men in the ring. Well one man and a fly in the ring, the referee starts the match.
And the fly and Austin pace in the ring. Austin, seemingly the stronger of the two. Certainly, the fly much quicker. Much more agile, how will
BRITTANY: No. . .
PJ: It's like fuckin' theater!
BRITTANY: Right. It's like Brecht.
ALEX: I would listen to that in a heartbeat.
BRITTANY: See, there you go. And that's the kind of response. I'm out here changing lives, do you know what I’m saying?
BRITTANY: Did you feel it?
ALEX: You were reaching lives.
PJ: I would never have thought that’s what’s in your traveling suitcase and I’m really glad it is.
ALEX: The first episode of sampler comes out next Wednesday. You can get it on iTunes or you can get it on our website, gimletprod.staging.wpengine.com. Upcoming episodes feature guests like W. Kamau Bell, the Bodega Boys, Molly Ringwald. There are tons of amazing, obscure beautiful podcasts that they are going to look into. So, you should go subscribe. Thanks for listening.
Reply All is me, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and Phia Bennin. Our editor is Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Kalila Holt and Mervyn Degaños. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Matt Lieber is the phone that you drop out of your hand onto the sidewalk, pick up in sheer horror, look at, and realize that it is somehow completely unharmed. Special thanks to Emma Jacobs and Emily Kennedy. Our theme song is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find us at our website, replyall.ninja, or on itunes at itunes.com/replyall.
For real, if you haven’t got a chance to, please review us on iTunes. It is much more helpful than you think. Also, last summer we did a live version of the Catherine Russell story at Cast Party, this amazing festival that included Invisibilia and Radiolab and all these other shows. If you wanna see what that looked like, Cast Party is available on iTunes and Vimeo. You can check it out.
Finally, this is Kaylee’s last week and we will miss her so much. In addition to being responsible for the magnum opus that is the newsletter, she has done a million things big and small to make this podcast smarter and better and funnier and we will really miss her. You can follow her on Twitter @kalilaholt. She’s great there. She’s great everywhere.
Thanks for listening everybody. We’ll see you next week.