Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940—North End Players—N. Portland



Whodunit!

This murder-mystery spoof is written by John Bishop and directed by J. J. Harris (Managing Director for the company).  It is playing at 7600 N. Hereford Ave. (just off Lombard, near the St. John’s area) through February 28th.  For more information, go to their site at www.northendplayers.org

Murder mysteries are one of the most popular types of reading material around, the classic writer of them probably being Agatha Christie.  And her play, The Mousetrap, and her novel, Ten Little Indians (politically incorrect title by today’s standards, I’m sure, but her original title was even more incorrect) were the icons of this genre.  Anyway, there are certain ingredients necessary for all whodunit mysteries (and spoofs of them):  A stormy night; a group stranded in a place with no outside communication; secret passages; some people not being who they seem; a murder or three; and contrived situations to make it all work.

In this case, it is a group of theatre folk who are supposedly being auditioned for a Broadway musical.  The place is the mansion of Elsa Von Grossenknueten (don’t even try to pronounce it), a backer of plays.  But it seems that Elsa (Debra Hudkins) has ulterior motives, as she is working with the police, Sgt. Kelly (Tony Domingue), disguised as a mild-mannered servant, to ferret out the Stage-door Slasher (George Spelvin—no, I’m not a spoiler, this name is an alias commonly used in plays where the actor doesn’t want to use his real name) an unidentified killer of dancers, from a show all these characters were involved with a few years back.

Together again are the flitting, fey Director, Ken (Breon McMullin), still trying to make his mark in show biz, as all his Hollywood films are still unreleased; some composers, the persistent pianist, Roger (Rob Harris) and his loony lush of a partner, Bernice (Kelli Lacey); then there is the irascible, Irish tenor, Patrick (Julian Dominic); also the clever, comic actor, Eddie (Joey Rivera), who no one takes seriously; Nikki (Sara Smith), the lovely, leggy dancer; a potential blatantly, brave producer, Majorie (Amanda Anderson); and, as always, a servant, the curiously, coarse maid, Helsa (Sue Harris).

Unfortunately, that is about all I can tell you of the plot because it is, after all, a mystery, and there are so many twists and turns and revelations in it that, to reveal more, would be spoiling some of the discoveries the audience should make.  As a script, it is quite good for the most part, following the conventional lines of spoofing a genre.  But there are several false endings in the second act that drag the play out more than it should.  But the execution of the play is very entertaining with some very funny bits and characters that are well presented.

Some of my favorite comic bits, that all also garnered applause from the audience, was the exchange between Hudkins and Domingue, a type of Charades, in which he is trying to communicate to her, without revealing his true identity to the others, the facts of the case.  Also there is a wonderful tongue-twister by Rivera, as he attempts to explain all the various identities of one of the characters.  And the attempted murder/love-making scene by two of the characters, as Rivera attempts to discreetly get some bottles of wine from the bar.  Wonderful!

The other amazing thing is that Harris has managed to put a lot of action and movement in his scenes in such a small space with a rather large cast.  Quite an accomplishment, I’d say.  To his credit, the comedy works, as do the mystery elements.  The set by the director and cast is very serviceable and the costumes, by Ellen Spitaleri, seem authentic for the period.  I should add that most of the names of film actors spewed out by the character of Ken, I recognized, being a bit of a trivia nut in that regard myself, and are authentic.

A note about comedy, usually there are one or more comedic roles in such a show, obviously, but it was considered that the straight-man, a somewhat thankless role, was the anchor to the show and often got paid more than the comic actor.  In this show both Domingue and Smith occupy these places and both do those positions justice.  Hudkins, as the matriarch of this “family,” give a delicious mock sophistication to the proceedings.  She’s a pro and it shows.  McMullin is a delight as he flits about the stage, ala a Noel Coward-type.  Harris, in the complicated role as the maid is maddeningly adept at creating chaotic confusion.  Lacey, channeling The Nanny’s speech pattern, perhaps, is absolutely tops as the kooky writer.  And Rivera is excellent as the comic, totally convincing and delightful in his portrayal.

I recommend this play, as it’s a hoot.  If you do choose to see it, tell them Dennis sent you.