In Lance Woods' "Murder Case," most of the mystery concerns guessing who'll-get-it, rather than whodunnit.
That's because -- despite a plethora of possible victims, motives and weapons -- no one is murdered until well into the second act of this latest entry in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, currently at the Vagabond Players.
Mr. Woods' second comedy-thriller to be produced by the festival, "Murder Case" takes place in a mansion at a Pennsylvania winery. The title is a triple pun that also refers to a "case" of wine, as well as being the surname of the main character, Elliott Case.
Beginning with this predilection for puns, the script bears a number of similarities to the playwright's 1986 "Breeding Will Tell," but this is a decidedly slicker effort, built on a more logical framework.
Elliott Case's world is crumbling around him. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, he admits he loves his business more than he loves his wife. But the business belongs to his wife, and he's afraid of losing it in a divorce.
At the same time, Elliott is resisting a merger with his chief competitor, a pistol-toting buffoon named Col. Burton, who once marketed wine in pop-top cans. To further complicate matters, a judge at a recent wine competition is trying to pin an attempted murder rap on Elliott for entering a bottle of wine that turned out to be poisoned.
Clearly, a lot of these folk have ample reason to wish each other dead. And much of the fun is trying to figure who will do what to whom -- and when.
Cynthia Barbre's competent direction adds to the suspense and humor, both of which are enhanced by the performances of Jim Farrier as the colonel, Joyce Bauer as a private investigator and Alan Aymie as an accountant with malleable moral fiber. (In addition, Brad Obrecht is comical as a reporter -- particularly after being knocked into rubbery unconsciousness -- but this is an expendable role.)
As Elliott, Gary Rice conveys the proper business-like manner, but needs more self-assurance; Teresa Martin has a tendency to overact as his wife.
"Breeding Will Tell" started off with an ear-piercing scream; "Murder Case" opens with a gun shot. The final scenes are also markedly alike. But structurally and stylistically, "Murder Case" suggests that, in the intervening years, the playwright has gathered some useful clues to the art of mystery-making.
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Through Aug. 11.
Where: Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway.