Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Old New York: Catherine Russell's Devoted to Her Life of 'Crime'

Catherine Russell and Richard Shoberg star in the Old New York production of Perfect Crime
By Mitch Broder

“Perfect Crime” has been running for 25 years, which might seem like a trivial feat if, say, the same person had been starring in it for 25 years.

Which she has.

Tough break. But a play’s a play. It could run forever and not get crabby. A person’s a person, and most persons can’t play another person 10,000 times. So it’s no surprise that the “Perfect Crime” star holds the Guinness record for Most Performances of a Theatre Actor in the Same Role.

Which she broke four years ago.

Catherine Russell created Margaret Thorne Brent in 1987 and has kept her alive since then in every scheduled performance but four. She missed three to go to her brother’s wedding and one to go to her sister’s wedding. She was supposed to miss two but her understudy got sick and Catherine was the understudy for the understudy.

Catherine Russel answers the phone in the Old New York production of Perfect Crime
The photos of Catherine are courtesy of John Capo
 Public Relations. At the top, she's with Richard Shoberg.
Tonight she appeared in performance number 10,281 (though, for her, only performance number 10,277). If she were to repeat all of her performances in a row, she would be onstage for about two and a half years, and she would probably do it without a lunch break.

There are eight performances a week, so, naturally, Catherine sees the job as part-time. She also teaches English at Baruch College, teaches acting at NYU, gives acting lessons at the theater, and manages the theater. In her time off, she appears in other plays and in movies. And every Sunday she goes to church.

The schedule may sound unnatural, but Catherine makes it sound the opposite: She wants to act, teach, and manage, so she acts, teaches, and manages. “I like what I do,” she told me. “I say to my students … ‘I’m happy being here with you.’ That’s why I think I don’t get sick. People are prone to getting sick when they’re unhappy.”

I accepted an invitation to see ‘Perfect Crime’ on its anniversary, even though it meant that I couldn’t get my money back if Catherine didn’t show. I had never seen it. Maybe it’s because it has moved eight times and I couldn’t keep up, which, as it turned out, I also couldn’t do when I saw it.

“Perfect Crime,” by Warren Manzi, is a murder mystery, which portrays a murder, or not, at its start, which is when I fell behind. I admit this not because I’m honest but because I’m not alone. The theater has printed a flier with answers to 17 plot questions, which was obviously put together for people besides me. Or not.

On the set of the Old New York theater performance of Perfect Crime
But I didn’t care. The plot can be a challenging diversion, but Catherine is the show. She owns the stage. And she looks really good in black. I found myself so fixed on her performance that, by the end of the play, I didn’t even have any questions, let alone any answers.

This was notable because Margaret Brent is not someone I’d need to meet. She is a therapist who could benefit from anger management therapy. She is in your face all the time and does many unpleasant things, and yet you like her. It’s just like being with a real person.

Still, that person is never quite as fascinating as Catherine Russell. After a nice chat I still couldn’t figure out how she’s played that part so long. She said that she never approaches her  performance as if it’s just a job. Yet she can dash from the box office to the stage at show time as if it’s just a job.

The view outside the theater of the Old New York show Perfect Crime
But I did believe that, at least in her case, both are true. Catherine Russell is a person who does what has to be done.

When the play needed a home to stay alive, she not only built one but got Snapple to sponsor it, creating the Snapple Theater Center. When the center needed another tenant, she got “The Fantasticks,” creating a single stop for the world’s longest-running musical and New York’s longest-running play.

“I’m lucky,” she said. “I’m blessed. When you’re lucky and blessed, you show up.” And that was what she had to do one day when I cluelessly called close to curtain.

Yet even then she was polite. She took the call to tell me herself.

“I’m gonna go shoot somebody now,” she said sweetly. “I’ll be thinking of you.”

Actress and World Record Holder Cahterine Russell stars in the Old New York production of Perfect Crime since 1987

Catch Catherine in “Perfect Crime” at the Snapple Theater Center, 1627 Broadway, at 50th Street, in New York City.


  1. Very impressive woman! Thanks for introducing her to us ~

  2. Incredible. To do that for 25 years and still have your lines not sound like a tour guide in a museum.
    An enjoyable read, as always, Favorite Author Mine.