Perfect Crime (play)

Perfect Crime is a 1987 murder mystery/thriller play by Warren Manzi.[1] It tells the story of Margaret Thorne Brent, a Connecticut psychiatrist and potential cold-blooded killer who may have committed "the perfect crime." When her wealthy husband, W. Harrison Brent, turns up dead, she gets caught in the middle of a terrifying game of cat and mouse with her deranged patient, Lionel McAuley, and Inspector Ascher, the handsome but duplicitous investigator assigned to the case.

Perfect Crime
Written byWarren Manzi
CharactersMargaret Thorne Brent
Inspector James Ascher
W. Harrison Brent
Lionel Mcauley
David Breuer
Date premieredApril 18, 1987
Place premieredCourtyard Playhouse, Grove Street, West Village, New York City
Original languageEnglish

Perfect Crime is the longest-running play in New York City history, with over 12,000 performances.[2]


The play has been called "an urban legend" by The New York Times critic Jason Zinoman[3] because of its long and storied history. Perfect Crime was originally optioned for Broadway in 1980, just after author Manzi graduated from the Yale School of Drama. At age 25, Manzi, then starring as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Amadeus on Broadway, was the youngest American author ever to have a play optioned for Broadway. After producer Morton Gottlieb wanted to change the play's title to Guilty Hands, Manzi lost interest and went to Hollywood to write screenplays, including one of the many versions of the film Clue. The play ultimately began its life several years later in 1987, in Greenwich Village at the Courtyard Playhouse on Grove Street, produced by the Actors Collective, a not-for-profit theater company whose artistic director was Warren Manzi. Commercial producer Armand Hyatt moved the show immediately after its four-week limited run to an Off-Broadway venue.[4]

Since opening on April 18, 1987, Perfect Crime has played for more than 12,000 performances, starring Catherine Russell. It is directed by Jeffrey Hyatt. It played in several New York theaters during its early years:

The show settled into a long run at the Duffy Theater at 46th Street and Broadway, in a renovated burlesque house above the former Times Square landmark, the Howard Johnson's. After that property was sold in 2005, Perfect Crime found a home at The Theater Center located at the corner of 50th Street and Broadway in Times Square, where it remains.[5]

In November 2016, Gary Busey spent two weeks in the role of Lionel.[6]

Catherine Russell

The play's leading lady, Catherine Russell, has performed the role of Margaret Thorne Brent since the beginning of the play's run in 1987. She has missed only four performances (to attend her siblings' weddings). She has never taken a sick day or a vacation day. The subject of Russell's longevity has been covered by People, Playbill, Today, and Entertainment Tonight.[7][8] Russell holds the world record for the most performances as a character in a play.[4] The play had its 12,000th performance on July 16, 2016.[2]


  • Margaret Thorne Brent, a psychiatrist
  • Philip Reynolds, posing as W. Harrison Brent, Margaret's husband, also a psychiatrist
  • Inspector James Ascher
  • Lionel McAuley, a patient of Margaret's
  • David Breuer, host of a local cable television show (appears on videotape)


One Sunday night, at the home of the wealthy Brents, psychiatrists living in a swanky Connecticut community, a woman shoots a man. By the time handsome detective James Ascher arrives, the body is gone. Ascher suspects the wife, Margaret Thorne Brent, a smart and sharp-tongued psychiatrist and novelist, although her patients are also suspect. One of her patients, Lionel McAuley, seeks fame as the "Baseball Bat Killer": he had previously killed his wife's lovers. During the course of his week-long investigation, more people are murdered (with a baseball bat), and Ascher finally learns the following:

Margaret and her husband Harrison had been rehearsing a nightmare, for some time, with her patient Carlotta Donovan involving Carlotta's pretending to shoot and kill a man. Six months ago, Harrison, during one of these role playing therapy sessions, committed suicide by putting real bullets in the gun he gave to Carlotta. Realizing that she had just killed Harrison, Carlotta also committed suicide. When Margaret returned home to find the dead bodies, she hid Harrison's body the fireplace brickwork and, after disfiguring Carlotta's dead body to disguise its identity, sank it in Scotty's Pond. Knowing that Harrison's huge fortune would devolve to his family in England upon his death, she quickly arranged for a former lover, Phillip Reynolds, to impersonate Harrison until she could transfer all of his accounts.

During Ascher's investigation, Reynolds kills Mrs. Johaneston, the cook, when she realizes that he is an imposter. Margaret's patient McAuley takes credit for the murders of Harrison and Carlotta and then Mrs. Johaneston. Nevertheless, Reynolds also kills McAuley, because McAuley witnessed Phillip and Margaret enter Mrs. Johaneston's apartment on the night of her murder. Believing that Margaret was falling in love with Ascher, the insanely jealous Reynolds, after beating McAuley to death, flees to England, leaving Margaret in the house with the dead body lying in her office as the police arrive.

Ascher also finds, to everyone's surprise, that Margaret was Carlotta's birth mother, that Carlotta had tracked down Margaret and become Harrison's lover. It is not clear whether her birth father was Harrison or Reynolds. Carlotta had hoped to work her way into the Brent's lives, angry at her English upbringing by a sexually abusive adoptive father rather than by the wealthy Brents. When Margaret finds out that Carlotta was her daughter and that she will be arrested as an accessory to the murders of Mrs. Johaneston and McAuley, she tries to commit suicide, but Ascher has filled her gun with blanks.

A key clue to Ascher's finding Harrison's body in the fireplace is a painting on the fireplace brickwork that Ascher realizes was altered when the bricks were replaced in the wrong order. Nevertheless, Ascher and Margaret seem to be falling in love.

Because of the complexity, a two-page Perfect Crime answer sheet[9] is available at the end of the performance.

See also

  • Line, an Off-Off-Broadway play running since 1974


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