That question crops up again and again with the infamous gallery that populates composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s 1990 musical. The show’s themes seem particularly consonant now in a country whose political atmosphere seems sick at heart.
For “Assassins” — one of Sondheim’s most brazenly original works — is a kind of melodic postmortem on the cluster of moral and mental illnesses that compel broken people to kill American presidents. “Tell me, Jodie, how I can earn your love,” John Hinckley Jr., in the spookily affectless guise of Evan Casey, sings to a photo of actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley, for those in need of a reminder, tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, and Sondheim pairs him with Squeaky Fromme (a divine Rachel Zampelli), would-be assassin of Gerald Ford, for the delusional folk-rock ditty “Unworthy of Your Love.”
You can imagine a mischievous grin on Sondheim’s own face as he dreamed up this ironic love song. “Assassins,” presented as vignettes with music, in which nine people from history croon and monologize their way through their successful or botched crimes, is by turns mordant and acerbically funny and always a bit unsettling. “Another National Anthem,” a brilliant ensemble number, sums up the altered state in which these disenfranchised souls dwell. “There are those who thrive on chaos and despair,” sings the evening’s occasional narrator, the Balladeer (Sam Ludwig). But such bland observations come across as inadequate — perhaps intentionally so — to explaining the motivations of Americans who commit extreme violence against their leaders.
Still, “Assassins” finds a gallows humor that’s almost charming — I told you it’s perverse — in this creepy cabaret of the dispossessed. Director Eric Schaeffer and set designer James Kronzer frame the proceedings with a decrepit wooden facade; it is not only the characters who are enveloped here in a palpable sense of decay. To make the metaphor more concrete, on one side of the stage are the ruins of the presidential box in Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, played with operatic malevolence by the magnetic Vincent Kempski.
Every character gets a spotlight moment (and that’s the real point, isn’t it?), whether it is Ford’s other attempted assassin, Sarah Jane Moore (a riotously ditsy Tracy Lynn Olivera), or the pathetic Giuseppe Zangara (Ian McEuen), who aimed for Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed the mayor of Chicago instead. The fine Signature regulars who create vivid portraits of sad sacks desperate for notoriety include Christopher Bloch as ranting crackpot Samuel Byck, who planned to fly a plane into Richard Nixon’s White House, and Lawrence Redmond portraying Leon Czolgosz, who fatally shot William McKinley.
With Jon Kalbfleisch capably conducting the eight-member orchestra, Redmond is apportioned one of the musical’s most resonant numbers at the moment: “The Gun Song.” It describes the involved workaday process of manufacturing the weapons and — with Guiteau, Booth and Moore forming a deranged chorus — the absurd ease with which they wreak havoc.
It is Smith’s dementedly serene Guiteau, assassin of James Garfield, though, who most exhilaratingly embodies the show’s ethos, revealed in equal parts gun smoke and madness. “I am going to the Lordy,” he sings on the way to his execution, as if flights of angels are accompanying him. You’ll find the barbarity of “Assassins,” distilled by Sondheim’s refined sense of the absurd, a weirdly enjoyable dive into crazy.
Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; set, James Kronzer; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Chris Lee; sound, Ryan Hickey. With Jimmy Mavrikes, Nova Y. Payton, Christopher Mueller, Christopher Michael Richardson and Maria Rizzo. About 1 hour 45 minutes. $66-$110. Through Sept. 29 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771. sigtheatre.org.