Arthur Bicknell Learns To Love His Bomb: Q&A with the Author of “Moose Murders”

Arthur Bicknell Learns To Love His Bomb: Q&A with the Author of “Moose Murders”
Playwright Arthur Bicknell
(Courtesy John Capo Public Relations)

In the annals of Broadway failure, there is Arthur Bicknell and “Moose Murders” — and there is everybody else. Other shows have lost millions more and been far more egregious. But none have had the notoriety of this mystery thriller that entered Broadway legend on February 22, 1983. “From now on there will be two groups of theater-goers in this world: those who have seen ‘Moose Murders,’ and those who have not,” wrote Frank Rich, the drama critic at the New York Times. “Those of us who have witnessed the play… will undoubtedly hold periodic reunions, in the noble tradition of survivors of the Titanic.” Echoed John Simon in New York Magazine, “This is as close to the bottomless pit as I hope I ever get.” So monumental was the disaster that Pee Wee Herman and Sandra Bernhard were apparently eager to co-produce a musical version in its wake. They even had a title: “Moose Murders, The Afterbirth.”

I had the distinct privilege not only to attend the jaw-dropping opening night but also to be the date for the party afterwards of one of the members of the ill-fated cast, June Gable. A longtime friend, June had given me a blow-by-blow description of the show’s rocky road, including the firing of its befuddled star, Eve Arden, the popular ’50s sitcom star. Eventually replaced by Holland Taylor, Arden had been cast as Hedda Holloway, the matriarch of a family that included a wheelchair-bound husband totally wrapped in bandages; a mercurial son, Stinky, who had the hots for his mother; two daughters, morose Lauraine — whose husband in turn incites Hedda’s lust — and 12-year-old Gay, a tap-dancing demon seed. 

Rounding out the characters were Dagmar, a Teutonic nurse; a vaudeville team, the Keenes, one-half of which was played by June; and a taciturn Native-American who ran the Adirondack lodge in which they were all marooned — and sequentially killed off — on one stormy night. For many of the critics, the nadir of the show occurred when the fully-bandaged paraplegic inexplicably rose from a wheelchair and kicked a character dressed in a moose costume in the crotch.

June’s stories were so revealing of the Broadway process that I offered to ghostwrite an article about her misadventures. It appeared in Esquire Magazine that summer — the only inside record of the debacle. That is, until now. After three decades, Bicknell has fully embraced his much-scorned child in a new memoir, “ Moose Murdered: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Broadway Bomb.” Highly entertaining, smartly written, and full of the irrationality that afflicts even the savviest theater veterans, the book is destined to become a show business classic. 

To coincide with its release, The Beautiful Soup Theatre Collective is reviving “Moose Murders” off-Broadway from January 30 through February 10. Bicknell, who went on to a successful career as a literary agent and publicist, recently spoke of why he decided to cop to what he himself calls “The Gold Standard of Awfulness.” ARTINFO’s Patrick Pacheco spoke with Bicknell about his new book and the history of the play. 

Why own “Moose Murders” now?

I’ve never been one to put myself on a pedestal so I owned it pretty quickly. Even after the TV critic Dennis Cunningham said, “If your name is Arthur Bicknell, change it.” What I couldn’t have foreseen was the longevity. AARP Magazine did an article on the greatest flops of the 20th Century. We were number five, right after New Coke and the Edsel.  

How was it to go back to relive the experience?

It was an emotional overload, it was all rather surreal because the horrible moments were so myriad. What I realized in going back is that a certain magical thinking takes place. “The actress will learn her lines.” “The play will direct itself.” “The audience will find this as hysterically funny as we do.” When you’re young, you don’t dare imagine success and accolades. But you certainly don’t expect abject, derisive failure. The day after I had to go to a book-signing party. There was such an elephant in the room until a friend came over and said, “I just don’t think I should be seen with you.” That came as a relief.

Did you read the reviews?

Every word. I memorized them. I could recite them at parties. I still do. People who say they never read reviews? They lie.

What went wrong, in your opinion?

Hard to explain but you know that kind of humor that strikes you as funny when it’s done badly but unintentionally? Terribly profound statements, bad plots, cheesy acting. I wanted to find some sort of vehicle to deliver it. It was the ’80s and we were trying to experiment with unconventional, wacky, and weird types of black humor. One of the biggest mistakes that we all made was the way in which we equated bad with funny.

Were you going for sort of what Christopher Guest does in his films, like “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman”?

Yeah. I was Guffman before there was a Guffman. That was what I was trying to do and failed.

Were many other productions of the play done after the Broadway disaster?

Some, but not a lot. There was only one country which inquired after the international rights. Turkey!

Do you think the new revival can repair the damage?

I’m thrilled with it. This guy [director Steve McCasland] has somehow managed to traverse the deepest darkest trails in my twisted little mind. I don’t know whether that will translate into success or not, but he gets me.

Will you be making changes for the upcoming revival?

I’m calling it the “shamelessly revised” version because I was appalled by the published one by Samuel French. I must’ve been very suicidal at the time. It was not just a case of misspelled words and missing stage directions. At one point, Nurse Dagmar, who’s a horrible punster, is coming toward a character with a hypodermic needle and the line is supposed to be, “I believe I will drive home one final point.” And the line was published as, “I believe I will drive home.” There were probably a lot of audience members going, “Okay. I’m for that.”

I know that at one point, during rehearsals, Holland Taylor asked you, “Who kills my husband?” and you couldn’t answer the question.

Well, I’ve now introduced logic into the script. When I was looking at it again, I thought, “Why not make a plot of who killed whom?” I don’t know if I ever did that before. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if I didn’t? But Holland was terrific, she learned the entire role in a day or two. And she made great suggestions. She said, “I don’t think Hedda should get away with it. I think a huge mechanical moose should just descend from the rafters and eat the entire set.” I remember thinking at the time, “She’s just an overwrought silly actor.” But now I think it was a missed opportunity. A really fun idea: “And then the play ate itself. The end.”