PlayMakers Repertory Company
Through April 20

With murder writ large in three new Triangle productions, we should note that it’s a red-letter month in the history of homicide, madness and a curious new form of polity.

April 4 marked the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in Memphis, while next week we commemorate the death of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865.

In both cases, a single person unilaterally assumed the ultimate role in governancedeciding upon the death of another human. In short, it’s the essence of autocracy: absolute rule by an individual, without check or appeal, conferred through a firearm.

With “stand your ground” ordinances now in effect in 23 states, this form of rule is coming into style. In a country where 330 million citizens own 340 million guns, as Mike Daisey mentioned in the January premiere of The Story of the Gun at PlayMakers, we already have more than enough ordnance to make a nation of autocrats.

We meet nine of themactual or would-be presidential murderersin the course of Stephen Sondheim’s unlikely musical, ASSASSINS. A sharp-eyed carny called The Proprietor (Ray Dooley) sizes them up as potential marks at the start of this sardonic work. In the script, the character runs a shooting gallery whose targets are chief executives; here, Rachel Hauck’s reductive set leaves the targets considerably more free-range.

The pitchman’s come-on seems a non sequitur at first, suggesting that presidential assassination is the cure for ills from upset stomachs to recalcitrant girlfriends. But the opening chorus seduces the assassinsand uswith the proposition, “Everybody’s got a right to be happy … Aim for what you want a lot / Everybody gets a shot / Everybody’s got a right to their dreams.”

Countering the siren song of extremely radical individualism is the Balladeer (Spencer Moses), a semi-Springsteen figure who concludes, “Angry men don’t write the rules and guns don’t right the wrongs / Hurts a while, but soon the country’s back where it belongs.”

By the end, both of these theses have been sorely tested by a group of psychopathic, angryand now, historicmisfits.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t always tell that they were psychopaths from Mike Donahue’s direction on opening night. Gregory DeCandia convinced as a thoroughly downtrodden Leon Czolgosz (murderer of President William McKinley), and Patrick McHugh’s take on Lee Harvey Oswald was also tightly wound. Danny Binstock and Joseph Medeiros were still sharpening the edges of John Wilkes Booth and Giuseppe Zangara, the failed assassin of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But Charles Manson disciple “Squeaky” Fromme (Maren Searle), Reagan shooter John Hinckley Jr. (Brandon Garegnani) and Gerald Ford assailant Sara Jane Moore (Julie Fishell) were reduced to lovesick or ditzy foils with no believable psychopathy.

Mark Hartman’s musical direction is surefooted in a tender “Unworthy of Your Love” and a heartfelt “Something Just Broke,” an addition to the 2004 Broadway premiere. Less precise was Robert Dagit’s sound design, which left a number of amplified voices (including Dooley’s) muddyand the lyrics sometimes unintelligiblethroughout opening night.

In his recent memoir, Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim notes that Assassins came closest to his expectations of all the works he’s written. But when most of these assassins seem less than absolutely driven toward their darkest acts, one of the most daring musicals ever written is significantly defanged.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Nefarious acts”