Arlington — There’s no mystery in Whodunit…the Musical. It was Theatre Arlington, in the cash box, with the inevitably underwhelming murder mystery that every community theater must produce every season because they sell tickets.
In this particular case, led by director Dennis Yslas, the group at Theatre Arlington has at least attempted to choose a murder mystery that possesses some modicum of self-reflexiveness. Whodunit strives to be aware. It often fails, but it strives nonetheless.
The show opens with the staff of the recently deceased owner of a mansion clearing out of the place for fear that it is haunted. The butler, Thomas Johnson (Mike Hathaway) pleads for them to stay, but they are convinced.
Immediately following this, Carrie Innes (Nancy Lamb), arrives, having recently rented the manse. She brings with her Liddy Allen (Jacque Campbell), a sassy, cockney woman who tends to take on a personal assistant type role though she is dressed as a frumpy maid. Eventually, Sally Innes (Diane Powell), Carrie’s daughter, joins her mother bringing her “friend” Jack Bailey (Joshua Sherman) in tow. And with that, the scene is set. Immediately, weird things and murders start happening.
To rag on the cliché nature of this show is fruitless because it is designed to be cliché. So then, how good is it at being cliché? Not very. Too often, author Ed Dixon can’t seem to decide between providing critical genre commentary and just telling a funny version of a murder mystery. For those wondering, comedy, more or less, wins out over actual satire.
Complicating things further is the inexplicable insertion of songs, hence the ellipses at the end of the title announcing that, for some reason, the show is a musical. But, despite the best efforts of music director H. Richard Gwozdz, whose four-piece ensemble plays admirably, the songs are pointless and inessential to the plot.
On the performance front, Jacque Campbell, despite some fluctuations in her cockney accent, is often the best part of the show. Granted, she’s given some of the most fun lines and is clearly the author’s intended comic relief, but she executes it perfectly. Hathaway is also entertaining as the butler, and Sherman provides a late jolt of comedy with his secondary role, Zara, the mysterious, tarot-reading staffer in disguise.
Lamb is just too stiff and unsympathetic as the widowed renter of the house. She lacks personality, which is generally overflowing in this show as all the characters are written intentionally big. But Lamb can barely muster and believable fear or excitement, or really much fluctuation in her deadpan voice. There is a lot more sass and attitude in the lines than the performance.
Calling your show Whodunit, as if to draw attention to the attempt at satire and subtle subversion, is risky. Satire doesn’t often draw attention to itself in the title. See A Modest Proposal or Blazing Saddles for reference. But, this decision by Dixon is what highlights the main problem with the show. It’s trying too hard to wink-wink-nudge-nudge the audience into laughing at it, when really it would have played better as just a comic murder mystery.
Though again, just like with most plays of this genre, there is no mystery. The show isn’t very good but that hardly matters as audiences go ga-ga for murder mysteries. So Theatre Arlington gave them one. Case Closed.