Play's time is the real killer part

THEATER

`Mystery' credited for being gutsy, but show drags on

August 22, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

There are certain admirable elements in A Certain Mystery, Paragon Theatre's entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

For example, there's the neat device of beginning and ending each act with a snippet of a college lecture. The audience serves as the class, and the lecturer is the recently deceased philosophy professor whose death is the source of the play's mystery.

Then there's the rather gutsy choice by first-time playwright Brad Rogers to conclude the play with a degree of ambiguity - hardly the usual way to wrap up a murder mystery.

But A Certain Mystery also has a number of less-than-admirable elements. At three acts, the script is at least one act too long. It's also far too talky. And co-directors Roy Hammond and Sherrionne Brown do little to hasten the pace or liven up the action.

At the time of his death, the murder victim, Randall Scott (played with smug assurance by Leo Knight), was writing a book on environmental ethics and team-teaching a class on his favorite play, Waiting for Godot. He was found lying on the floor in the faculty club, his head bashed in, presumably with a candlestick.

The fictional college where the play takes place is a small, struggling Eastern school whose self-important president (Victor Carr) hires a private investigator and gives him two days to discreetly identify Scott's killer and avoid as much scandal as possible.

The president is convinced the murderer was an outsider. But it turns out that much of the faculty and some of the students had motives galore. The brash English professor (Debbie Bennett) who team-taught with Scott was his erstwhile lover. The art professor (Ric M. Herrera) who is her current lover wasn't exactly fond of Scott. Even the grad student assigned to serve as the investigator's campus guide had "issues" with the deceased.

And Scott's death isn't the play's only mystery. The investigator, whose name is Bartlett, is an alum of this college, a secret he tries to keep, for reasons that prove less consequential than the build-up would lead you to believe.

Part of what Rogers seems to be attempting in A Certain Mystery is to deflate the often-pompous egos of academe. One clever way he does this is by making the character of a cleaning lady (Dravon James) more perceptive than the pretentious, over-educated faculty. James' portrayal is also one of the production's most naturalistic, although Adam Roffman brings a credibly youthful air to the grad student, and Gordon Embry's depiction of Bartlett is at once slick and suitably apprehensive.

In the final analysis, however, A Certain Mystery has pretensions of its own. And as to any comparisons to Samuel Beckett's masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, an excessive amount of waiting is all that these two plays have in common.

Show times at Paragon, 9 W. 25th St., are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-467-1966.

With only two weekends left in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, it's time to start thinking about next year. The deadline for submissions for the 2003 festival is Sept. 30. Playwrights should call the festival office at 410-276-2153 for guidelines. A $5 fee must accompany each submission.

`Grease' is the word

Performing Arts Productions has added a couple of attractions to its 2002-2003 lineup at the Lyric Opera House. Grease will play a return engagement May 2-4, featuring Frankie Avalon in the role of -who else? - Teen Angel. Tickets cost $15-$50 and go on sale this fall.

Also, The Celtic Tenors will pay a one-performance visit to the Lyric on Dec. 18. The three young Irish tenors (Niall Morris, James Nelson and Matthew Gilsenan), who are being featured this week on Maryland Public Television, perform a repertoire ranging from Irish folk to classical pieces. Tickets cost $35-$45 and are on sale now. Information on either show: 410- 494-2712.

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