In the flesh, the thing itself was about as odd and amusing as it had appeared on paper: John Malkovich delivering the "confessions" of convicted Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger while accompanied onstage by a Baroque orchestra and a couple of sopranos singing arias. Yes, Malkovich was as delightfully malevolent as ever, assuming a faux Austrian accent, stalking the stage in a white suit and polka-dot shirt, occasionally groping the sopranos and, yes, strangling one, all the while delivering writer/director Michael Sturminger's text with requisite virtuosity. There was even a bit of humorous improv (at ArtsEmerson's expense) and a legitimate wardrobe malfunction that provoked some of the best stage business of the night.
Unterweger, you'll recall, was a serial killer first convicted in 1974 for murdering a young girl. He then served 15 years and was released as "rehabilitated" following the publication of an autobiography and a campaign to free him. Paroled in 1990, he went on to murder 11 more women in Europe and the US, was apprehended, and hanged himself in jail.
The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, was first performed by Malkovich in 2008 in Santa Monica, and has since shown in Vienna and London. And, it has to be said, Malkovich is very funny — fans of the actor might consider that they're getting their money's worth at the show (whose second and final performance is tonight), as long as you don't spring for the $195 premium seats.
Or maybe you will. After an overture, Malkovich strides out in his white suit and aviator shades. The premise is that he's on a book tour, selling the show's title tome. Part of this serial killer's charm — and the show's — is that he addresses the audience directly. Malkovich works the crowd like a very well-scripted stand-up, shouting "CHA-CHING! CHA-CHING!" at the potential sales of his book, making a joke about fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, walking into the audience to talk about his relationship with women, complaining that the orchestra is playing his least favorite kind of music.
And that's where it becomes clear that Unterweger — returned from the dead — is living in his own Dante-esque hell. He's on possibly the world's worst book tour ever, struggling with his language (even the supertitles accompanying the singers' German and Italian text is mistranslated), forced to act out his story in front of a different audience every night. And he's really very good — I mean, it's John Malkovich. But this is an odd work.
Between Unterweger's monologues, the two sopranos (Sophie Klußmann and Claire Meghnagi) take turns singing arias of love and death from Beethoven, Boccherini, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Weber. Sometimes Malkovich — who performs some of Unteweger's monologue seated at a desk center stage with a lamp and carafe of water — rolls his chair off to the side of the stage, or he nuzzles and gropes the singers, or he crawls off into the orchestra as if to take a nap.