Saturday, November 5, 2011

Millbrook: "A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody"

The Millbrook Community Players' 2011 season is coming to a close with Ron Bernas' comedy/murder mystery, A Little Murder Never Hurt Anybody. In its two hours, virtually every convention of the genre is parodied good-naturedly by a company who play it straight, with no attempts to signal or belabor the humorous intent.

Wealthy businessman Matthew Perry [John Chain] is seemingly very happy in his long marriage to Julia [Sharon Demuth], but longs for the "freedom" his friends appear to have -- to go on trips, play golf, etc. -- and on New Year's Eve, the couple reveal their New Year's Resolutions to each other: hers is to finish reading Doctor Zhivago, and his is to kill her before the year ends.

Since her death must look like an accident, and since this is a sophisticated couple who can exchange witticisms casually, she offers ideas for her demise, though they are all rejected for reasons apparent to anyone familiar with the murder-mystery genre, and she adds a resolution to urge him on his way that she will have a mad passionate affair with their butler Buttram [Michael Snead].

The couple's ditsy-blonde daughter Bunny [Katie Moore] shows up with her new boyfriend, up-and-coming lawyer Donald Baxter [Shelton Davis] and announces her engagement, so everything gets complicated for Matthew & Julia: a June date is too soon for Bunny, who has so many preparations to make, so Matthew suggests the next January 1.

Can their resolutions be changed? Matthew won't budge, so Julia resolves to stay alive. -- Let the games begin.

The play's several scenes take us through the year as numerous off-stage deaths occur, prompting the intervention of Detective Plotnik [Paul Foree], a gumshoe who thinks he is clever, but is easily distracted by "evidence" he finds. All the deaths seem to have happened after Donald arrived on the scene, so he is a suspect; the "butler did it" when Plotnik overhears a phone conversation; and so on -- circumstantial evidence at best. -- And the parties the Perry's throw throughout the year have fewer and fewer guests, as the invitees fear for their lives while the body count increases in ever-increasingly odd circumstances.

It is a credit to this ensemble that they play their roles honestly, with no hint of self-indulgence. So the humor comes through. In one hilarious scene at the couple's Halloween party, everyone is in costume appropriate to their character: Prince Valiant [Donald] & his lady in waiting [Bunny], Charlie Chan [Plotnik], Big-Bad Wolf [Matthew] and Little Red Riding Hood [Julia], and a Bunny [Buttram] with ears and cottton tail spoofing Playboy bunnies.

Of course, not everything is as it seems, and all will turn out for the best by the end. Without giving away essential plot reversals and revelations, let it suffice that there are a few appealing surprises here.

Highlight performances come from Mr. Chain and Ms. Demuth whose stage comfort and experience come to the fore; Ms. Moore portrays a dumb-blonde with credible naivete; and Mr. Baxter [in his acting debut with only a couple of weeks in rehearsal] shows a lot of promise.

Director Fred Neighbors has a quietly pleasant hit on his hands.