Everything goes just so in ‘Murder Room’


“The Murder Room” features Jan Cohen as Lottie, Esteban Alvarez III as inspector Crandal and Kristin Mercer as Mavis at the Gainesville Community Playhouse.

MATT WALSH/CORRESPONDENT
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 at 1:24 p.m.

British comedies are a special breed, sometimes appreciated when they journey across the pond; sometimes, not. “The Murder Room,” the comedy on stage at the Vam York Theater, is even more special as it combines mystery with comedy, and the comedy itself is laced with slap-dash farce.

Facts

‘The Murder Room’

What: Satire of British murder mysteries staged by the Gainesville Community Playhouse
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 6
Where: Vam York Theater, 4039 NW 16th Blvd.
Tickets: $16, $8 for students with ID beginning 30 minutes before showtime if available
Info: 376-4949 or www.gcoplayhouse.org

Written by Jack Sharkey, the play has been described as “Agatha Christie meets Abbott and Costello.” To go a step further, Sharkey uses words the way W.S. Gilbert did in many Gilbert & Sullivan operettas. In fact, it would not be at all unlikely to hear the whole cast break into song with a rousing round of “Yes, you did; no, I didn’t.”

Mercifully, they don’t. The talented group of actors assembled by the Gainesville Community Playhouse has enough to do dealing with all the red herrings flying about England’s Bynewood Cottage before they fall at their feet as if they were a slew of dead fish from Arkansas and Louisiana.

The production’s set of Bynewood Cottage, designed by Jerry Brewington, is a model of old English splendor and clever, old English architecture. Under practical window seats lie hidden staircases descending to a cellar where wine is stored alongside a secret room conveniently called “the murder room.” A secret drawer opens to reveal pistols, loaded for bear... or, are those bullets blanks? Nothing is quite what one might think it is in Bynewood Cottage.

The master of the house, Edgar Hollister, has disappeared on his wedding night. It is possible that Mavis, his new bride, has killed him in order to reap the benefits of his will. Susan, Edgar’s daughter from his first marriage, has been living in America, getting her college degree. Newly graduated, she arrives with a fiance, Barry, an American she plans to marry that afternoon. Despite her college training, Susan is a charmingly simple girl who is generally clueless about the goings-on in her father’s home. With wide eyes and a general air of daffiness, she willingly helps anyone who asks. Another ditsy character, Lottie the maid, is a trusted servant who also is willing to help. She just didn’t think it was important to mention that she heard three shots the night Edgar disappeared. Two Scotland Yard police types, Inspector Crandall and Constable Howard, take part in the investigation and have a fine time bumbling through conversations that sound a bit like patter songs.

Word play and exactitude mean everything in this stylized production. For the most part, the cast had it all down pat on opening night with just a few small glitches. It would be nice if the sound system worked consistently. There was a good deal of blurry sound in the play’s first act, which, fortunately, was cleared in the second and third acts. Body mikes are sometimes helpful and sometimes not. In one scene in which Mavis collapses against Barry’s chest, the sound was destroyed.

The British accents all sound fine to me. Especially notable is Kristin Mercer as Mavis, who is every inch the crafty gold digger and consummate liar. Smiling sweetly as she hands a glass of poisoned cocoa to her innocent victim, she manages to sound evil and funny simultaneously.

Jan Cohen is nothing if not wonderful as Lottie, the foolish maid, who insists on being part of everything but doesn’t remember what is necessary to the solution of Edgar’s disappearance.

Danielle Pagliara plays dim-witted Susan with such sweetness and light that you want to name her “bubble-head-of-the-year,” Pagliara is a joy to behold as she floats onward and upward to ever-more mesmerizing clouds of foolishness.

As Constable Howard, Doug Diekow gives a strong, funny performance that fools everyone into thinking that things that are untrue should be true.

Inspector Crandall is played by Esteban Alvarez III in perfect Scotland Yard manner. He is determined to solve the mystery even if he has to peel every layer of wood from the old mansion’s secret doors and tunnels.

Sid Gloukwade, who plays the missing Edgar, is dapper and calm, the perfect British gentleman, if not a terribly bright one.

As trap doors open, guns discharge and light switches plunge the stage into darkness, credit Patricia Thomson for directing all the incredible goings-on with so much skill and precision. Like a well-schooled military drill, Thomson has lined up the players to give a bang-up performance of a zany mystery-farce in which everything must go just so, and does.

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