Totem Pole's pithy 'Murder' right on target Review: Acting, direction take all the mystery out of staging a winner.

August 08, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There are few more delightful ways to wile away a summer day than with a juicy murder mystery. If that mystery is also witty and sophisticated, all the better.

"Murder by the Book," Duncan Greenwood and Robert King's mystery play about a best-selling author of crime fiction, isn't perfect, but it does satisfy those conditions. When seen in the pastoral setting of Totem Pole Playhouse, performed by an able cast and nimbly directed by Baltimore actor and director Wil Love, this murder mystery is very nearly a summer outing to die for.

That sort of wordplay is typical of this British script. "Remember that time we were still in love?" asks the novelist's estranged wife. "Yes," he replies, "I seem to recall it was a Tuesday." Admittedly, some lines fall into the groan category; for instance, "You have two things in common with the Mona Lisa: You're beautiful, and you've been framed."

But one person's groan is another's grin, and there's plenty of plot to distract you in between the one-liners. Director Love has moved the action from London to Washington, where novelist Selwyn Piper is visited by his estranged wife, Imogen, who proceeds to shoot him for refusing to grant her a divorce.

"Murder by the Book," however, is the kind of mystery in which everyone is so busy double-crossing everyone else that nothing is quite what it seems. I won't spoil the fun, but I will offer a few clues, couched in the form of character analysis.

For starters, there's gun-toting Imogen -- an actress with a propensity for over-acting (fueled by a fondness for alcohol). Imogen is the type of role performers revel in, and Sherry Skinker vamps her way through it with panache.

Selwyn, on the other hand, takes pride in his self-control. For that matter, he simply takes pride in himself, and T J Edwards' portrayal exudes urbanity and arrogance. Though Selwyn insists, thrive on the unexpected," he can't believe anyone can outsmart him -- a trait that virtually ensures he will get his comeuppance.

As Selwyn's publisher -- and Imogen's lover -- Patrick Ellison Shea portrays a man whose loyalties are almost always in question and whose eye is so narrowly focused on the mighty dollar, he's easily flummoxed. In contrast, as Selwyn's new neighbor, Joey Landwehr initially appears rather daffy, but this nosy neighbor turns out to be quite shrewd. Only Fern Marie Aames' over-eager depiction of Selwyn's secretary seems forced. It's especially unfortunate since she figures prominently in the opening scene -- which already feels forced thanks to a heavy dose of exposition.

Mysteries are delicate creatures to stage, and adding a dash of comedy makes them trickier still. But this is a combination Totem Pole excels at, and from the first view of designer Kathleen Runey's stylish black, white and gold set, the production hits few false notes.

Noel Coward would probably have recognized the warring couple in this play, although their plots and counterplots are more indebted to Ira Levin ("Deathtrap"). Like that stage thriller, "Murder by the Book" also has predictable patches, but it takes so many twists and turns, you're unlikely to guess them all. And, just in case you do, director Love tosses in one more at the curtain call. It's a clever clincher for a clever production.


Where: Totem Pole Playhouse, 9555 Golf Course Road, Caledonia State Park, Fayetteville, Pa., 14 miles west of Gettysburg

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, with matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 16

Tickets: $19-$25

` Call: 717-352-2164

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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