'Murder at the Howard Johnson's' offers silly, predictable laughs

THEATER

August 23, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

"Murder at the Howard Johnson's" is not a restaurant critic's assessment of the fried clams. It's a comedy that was murdered on Broadway a dozen years ago, but has managed to find new life in smaller venues and summer stock theaters, such as Totem Pole Playhouse.

This silly comedy by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick is as pedestrian and predictable as the hotel chain whose name it bears, but there's something satisfying about having things work out the way you expected. After all, Howard Johnson's has built its reputation on the allure of the predictable.

And, this bit of foolishness provides an antic vehicle for three Totem Pole regulars: Jayne Houdyshell and Baltimoreans Paul DeBoy and Wil Love (Center Stage patrons will remember the latter as the co-star of its recent production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep").

In "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," the threesome is caught in a classic romantic triangle. Mr. Love plays Paul Miller, a used car salesman whose wife, Arlene (Ms. Houdyshell), has been having an affair with their dentist (Mr. DeBoy).

The gimmick is that in each of three acts, two characters team up to murder the third -- in a different configuration in each act. In act one, Arlene and the dentist plot to kill Paul; in act two, the Arlene and Paul plot to kill the dentist; and, well, you can guess the arrangement in act three.

The acts take place in three different rooms at a Howard Johnson's, on or around the holidays of Christmas, Independence Day and New Year's Eve. This gives Baltimore costume designer Patricia M. Risser license to dress the actors in an array of tacky holiday outfits, the tackiest of which is Mr. DeBoy's Stars and Stripes boxer shorts.

The action is paced at a high level of giddiness, under Robert Spencer's direction. After being accidentally injected in the rump with Novocain, Mr. DeBoy gives new meaning to the sensation of a leg falling asleep. And, in the funniest visual gag, Mr. Love hops about soaking wet, strapped to a chair and shrouded in a shower curtain following his attempted murder by drowning. Ms. Houdyshell also gets into the spirit of the piece, but this character actress seems a bit miscast as a femme fatale.

You might think of "Murder at the Howard Johnson's" as "Plaza Suite" with murder on its mind. The difference is that HoJo's isn't the Plaza, and Messrs. Clark and Bobrick aren't Neil Simon. But what the hey, the drive to Totem Pole is a pleasant daytrip, and this lightweight romp will give your funny bone one last summer tickle.

'Murder at the Howard Johnson's'

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Sept. 1.

Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, Fayetteville, Pa., 14 miles west of Gettysburg.

Tickets: $11-$18.

Call: (717) 352-2164.

** 1/2

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