A tireless actress, back at the scene of the ‘crime’

By Darryn King

On Sunday, before a small, masked, spaced-apart audience at the Theater Center, the most persistent show in New York made a return after what might be described as — in the scheme of things — a brief intermission.

Warren Manzi’s “Perfect Crime” opened on April 14, 1987, and stubbornly stayed put. The unflashy murder mystery has remained more or less the same as everything changed around it. It took an international pandemic to shut the show down for 13 months.

Until then, Catherine Russell, now 65, had missed only four performances in the lead role of a possibly murderous psychiatrist. She owns and runs the building, which is also the venue for “The Office: A Musical Parody.” That show is running again, too; Russell hands out tickets at its box office.

“Perfect Crime” was among the first off-Broadway shows to open with approval from Actors’ Equity. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke before Sunday’s show, telling theatergoers, “The show must go on.” Russell has been outspoken in her belief that the show might have gone on much sooner.

After her 13,524th curtain call, Russell selected a familiar spot in her book-lined office onstage to talk about 34 years of “Perfect Crime.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Congratulations on reopening. How does it feel to be back?

It’s wonderful being onstage in a room full of people. I value that so much, and this is what I always wanted to do. I’m selling the tickets before the show to the other show. And occasionally plunging a toilet. I get offstage and I go downstairs and take the garbage out of the dressing rooms on the third floor. I love every part of it.

I’m a person who likes stability who chose a field that wasn’t very stable. But I’ve been able to have a fairly stable life in the theater.

What was it like to suddenly lose that stability last year?

I was fine! I missed being onstage, but it was fine not doing it. I didn’t dream about it.

You weren’t itching to do a version on Zoom.

Oh, God no. I went to the theater every day to work. It’s a few blocks from my apartment.

If I were not near a theater, I think I would have missed it. But I was still here, in my home away from home, teaching acting privately, and working toward reopening. We found extra unused paint and repainted walls unusual colors, fixed seats, Marie Kondo-ed the backstage areas.

I did a lot of research on how to make it safe, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out how, not just for me to get back onstage, but for theaters to open again in New York. We have our Atmos air scrubbers over there. It’s very safe here.

You also organized a lawsuit against the city and state, pushing for reopening?

I felt really strongly that everything needed to be closed down and I was fine with that. But then things started reopening. Restaurants were open, gyms were open. Bowling alleys is what pushed me over the edge. I have nothing against bowling, but if you put your fingers in these holes and wear rented shoes, why can’t you go to the theater? It was nothing malicious, but theater fell through the cracks.

The suit is still going on. We’re pushing for 50% capacity. I think we will prevail.

De Blasio was here tonight. Did you bring this up with him?

No. I don’t know if he knows that I’m suing him. I’m grateful that he and [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo let us open. But I’d like to be more open.

I’m also raising money to convert a garage down the street into a five-theater complex. We need more off-Broadway theaters, especially now after COVID. Smaller theaters are going to be more practical — it’s a lot easier to raise money for an off-Broadway show than a Broadway show. And I really think we need more midtown theaters that are clean and safe, and COVID-safe, that people feel comfortable going to. I built this place 15 years ago. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I kind of want to take what I learned here and apply it.

You must have missed interacting with audiences.

In normal times, I love talking to people after the show and hearing what they thought about it. Occasionally someone will wait for me afterward and say: “You know what? I’m a librarian and I’ve never missed a day of work.” That sort of mentality, showing up to work every day, strikes a chord in many people. They admire that.

There are no times when your heart’s not in it?

People sometimes come thinking, She’s going to be phoning it in. And I’m kind of like, Screw you! You can think I’m stupid or something for doing it, but I am not phoning it in. I’ve done it when I didn’t feel well, I was really tired, when I was grieving horribly. But honestly, if I thought that I was phoning it in, I would say it’s time to go.

Do you feel you’ve missed out on anything because of your commitment to the show? There must have been a few refused dinner invitations over the years.

I was actually engaged to somebody else when I first started doing “Perfect Crime.” He said it ruined his life. He did not want to be married to somebody who would be onstage eight times a week. Though I didn’t know the play was going to run this long … obviously.

But I was blessed to eventually be married to somebody who understood it. We got married at City Hall at 11 o’clock and had lunch at The Palm. Then I went back to work and he took a nap, and we were both really happy.

I notice there’s a prop book of the complete works of William Shakespeare there. Do you ever fantasize about doing another play eight times a week?

I’m happy in this play. She’s a really complicated character, and it’s fun to find different aspects of this character as I’ve gotten older. I haven’t gotten bored doing it.

One good thing about doing a play like this, it lets out whatever you’ve been feeling during the day. I can cry onstage, pick myself up, walk off the stage, and whatever I’ve been feeling is gone. Do you know what I mean? I don’t want to say it cleanses the soul. That sounds pretentious. But it’s a good way to use all the stuff that’s happened to you in your life.

Does the character feel different to you today?

I think that my performance is a little different after the year that we’ve had. At the end of the play, I used to fall apart more. But she pulls herself together. She’s a little steelier, a little stronger.

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