Obituaries

Warren Manzi, at 60; wrote N.Y.’s longest-running play

Handout/New York Times
Handout/New York Times
Warren Manzi’s Off Broadway thriller “Perfect Crime” is the longest-running play in New York theater history.

While growing up in Lawrence, Warren Manzi needed only to look around the house to find early inspiration for what years later would become “Perfect Crime,” the thriller he wrote that is the longest-running play in New York City theater history.

“My mother is my greatest influence because when I was very young she used to read all kinds of mysteries,” he said in a 2011 interview with playwright Adam Szymkowicz that is posted on Szymkowicz’s blog. “There were always mystery books around the house. At a young age I read Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Perry Mason, Sherlock Holmes. I became interested in drama in high school and decided to put the two of those things together.”

“Perfect Crime” has logged more than 11,800 performances during the nearly 29 years it has played Off Broadway. With 17,162 performances, “The Fantasticks” holds the record for musicals, but Mr. Manzi’s “Perfect Crime” has set the mark for straight plays.

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Mr. Manzi, who left New York years ago and moved to Methuen to care for his elderly mother, died of pneumonia last Thursday in Holy Family Hospital in Methuen. He was 60.

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“He loved the fact that ‘Perfect Crime’ was like a perpetual motion machine, but he was looking beyond that,” said his companion of several years, Mary Hill of Methuen.

She said Mr. Manzi “was working on a lot of other things when he died,” including a novel, some short stories, and a couple of two-part dramas.

For now, however, “Perfect Crime” is his lasting creative legacy. After it opened on April 18, 1987, D.J.R. Bruckner began his New York Times review: “Warren Manzi has the makings of a crackling thriller in ‘Perfect Crime’ … Its tension holds tight even while it ridicules conventions of the genre. A man is murdered onstage – maybe. A bumbling detective is convinced that, although there is no corpse, the man really was murdered – by his wife, a young and threateningly intelligent psychiatrist, who may also be involved in the murder of two women whose corpses have not disappeared.”

Bruckner ultimately found the play flawed, but he praised Mr. Manzi for giving “funny lines in constantly surprising situations to the detective, the psychiatrist, and one of her patients,” and added: “It is a tribute to Mr. Manzi’s writing that, when the detective asks a question, people in the audience sometimes murmur replies.”

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The complexity of the plotting is such that the play’s website features a question and answer section, with a warning that it could ruin surprises, at www.perfect-crime.com/show/spoilers.

“Warren was a brilliant writer,” said Armand Hyatt of Amesbury, a lawyer who is one of Mr. Manzi’s dozens of cousins and who assisted him with legal matters.

Hyatt and Mr. Manzi were among the 56 grandchildren of Michele Manzi, who was born in Quindici, Italy, and the former Angelina Grillo, who was from Marzano Appio, Italy.

Warren Michael Manzi was born in Manchester, N.H., the only child of Flora A. Manzi. She had been one of Michele and Angelina’s 11 children, and she was a single mother as she raised Mr. Manzi in Lawrence. Hyatt said she ran the finance department of an electric contracting company that one of her brothers founded.

As a boy in Lawrence, Mr. Manzi attended Holy Rosary School, graduated from Central Catholic High School, and became involved with oratory competitions, Hyatt said.

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Mr. Manzi graduated from the College of the Holy Cross and received a master’s from the Yale School of Drama. Among his inspirations as a playwright, “Shakespeare is number one,” he said in the interview with Szymkowicz. Other theatrical touchstones included “Chekhov, Moliere, Ib-sen, Strindberg. Pinter, Tennessee Williams, and Pirandello. I’m a huge fan of John Osborne and Tom Stoppard is a genius.”

Working with the Garrett Players of Lawrence, Mr. Manzi directed plays including Harold Pinter’s “The Birthday Party” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” He took productions to the New England Theatre Conference’s competitions and was a five-time best director winner, according to biographical information on the website of his publisher, Samuel French Inc.

At 25, Mr. Manzi was Tim Curry’s understudy for “Amadeus” on Broadway. Curry played the title role of Mozart and Ian McKellen was Salieri. Hyatt said that the first time Mr. Manzi filled in for Curry, “Ian Mc-Kellen bowed to Warren at the end because he gave such a great performance.”

Mr. Manzi wrote an early version of “Perfect Crime” while he was Curry’s understudy. A producer optioned the play for Broadway, but it was never produced. According to his publisher, at that time Mr. Manzi was the youngest American to have a play optioned for Broadway.

As he reworked “Perfect Crime,” Mr. Manzi moved to California and acted in the movies. His credits include “The Manhattan Project” (1986) and “Nuts” (1987), according to imdb.com. His publisher’s website said he also completed four screenplays that have not been produced.

Returning to New York, Mr. Manzi became artistic director of a not-for-profit actors group and staged productions including Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters,” according to the 2012 book “Blood on the Stage, 1975-2000: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection.”

In 1995, Mr. Manzi married Ellen Margaret Michelin, who died of complications from kidney ailments a few months after their marriage, said Hyatt. “Warren was crushed,” he said.

Mr. Manzi left New York to live with his mother in Methuen when she was older and her health was frail, Hill said. Flora Manzi died in 2003.

Hill said Mr. Manzi was pleased with the success of “Perfect Crime.” “It was quite important to him,” she said, “and he liked the fact that it continued to play in New York when he was up here.”

Living in Methuen, however, seemed to provide him with the necessary space and distance to keep writing. “He wanted to be hidden. He didn’t want people to be able to find him,” Hill said, adding that “he was a wonderful man.”

In addition to Hill and Hyatt, Mr. Manzi left many cousins and an extended family. A funeral Mass was said Tuesday in Holy Rosary Church of Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence, where Mr. Manzi and his mother had been parishioners.

“We decided that for Auntie Flora’s sake, we would have the funeral on her birthday,” Hyatt said.

Along with redoing the early draft of “Perfect Crime,” Mr. Manzi engaged in rewrites once it was in production.

At times, he handed new lines to actors as they prepared to step onto the stage. “I’ve learned how to learn lines quickly,” Catherine Russell, who has performed in the role of Margaret Thorne Brent for all but four shows since the play opened in 1987, told The New York Times.

“I always wanted ‘Perfect Crime’ to be a commercial thriller but I didn’t know it would take off the way it did,” Mr. Manzi told Szymkowicz in 2011. “I knew that all the rewrites when it first opened strengthened the core of the play. We’ve gained a lot by all the work we’ve done along the way.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.