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‘Murder’ takes the stage in ‘50s-style whodunit

Queens community theaters are focusing on mysteries of late. Spotlight Players has just presented “Deathtrap,” Douglaston Community Theatre is mounting Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow” this week and Theatre à la Carte presented “The Mousetrap” last spring and is presenting Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” later this month into November.

Following its “Witness for the Prosecution” last spring, Whitestone’s Theatre Time stays in the mystery genre with its current production, “Murder Takes the Stage,” by James Reach. It’s a risky move to select a rather unknown play by an unknown playwright, at a time when name recognition can make the difference between a full house and an empty house.

But Theatre Time’s Kevin and Judy Vincent were willing to take a chance on a play with a large cast that Mr. Vincent is willing to direct, and in which Mrs. Vincent would take a juicy part. Opening night was packed, filled with expectant friends and relatives, as well as hearty community theater fans hoping for a memorable evening on the amateur stage.

To put this piece into perspective, think back to the ‘50s, to a non-digital age when things where a bit more simple. Television was blossoming and the medium demanded a cascade of scripts to fill in weekly series plot lines — not necessarily gripping or moving scripts, but rather simple story lines that might hold an audience’s attention long enough to get to the next commercial. Within this context, imagine a script dealing with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys trying to solve a murder. Powerful stuff? Not at all, but interesting enough because the scriptwriter has supplied a large cast of characters, all equally likely to have done the foul deed.

Get the picture? Perhaps “Murder Takes the Stage” is not a well-known piece because it lies barely above the Nancy Drew level, suitable for high schools — perhaps junior high schools — these days. At its worst, it is sophomoric and disjointed. For example, one character runs off with an axe at a scene closer and neither the axe nor consequences of its use are ever heard of after that. One character fetches another a vial of pills and we learn in the precious shoe-dropper, “These aren’t my pills. Are you trying to poison me?” Well, whose pills are they? Duh! Why would a single prescription pill be fatal? Do doctors prescribe cyanide?

On the positive side, the piece does offer a large number of roles for local performers. So in case one cast member drives you nuts, you have quite a few others to divert your attention. The setting is a New England summer stock professional theatre, on the day when a new play is to have its first read-through by a group of actors from the “big city” — aging has-beens, a young hopefuls, a strutting heartthrob, and the bitchy star actress for whom the play was written. The actors who portrayed “within the play the actors” revealed a spectrum of talent — from those who stumbled through lines and lacked projection, to very seasoned local “pros.” For a painful while the stumblers ruled the stage, but those moments always resolved themselves in due time.

The more seasoned actors adopted a surprisingly diverse range of acting styles. Some were using a straightforward, naturalistic style. For example, Kevin Ryan, as the aging, no-longer lead, was thoroughly at home with his part and quite convincing, even with the lurid twist in his character at the end. Armando Catenaro, as the within the play director, allowed his character to fade gently into the ensemble, never grandstanding. Jim Thomas, as the local sheriff, was dependable and to the point, although why he was using a southern accent in a New England town was never made clear. Dawn Romanowski was lively and sweet as the Nancy Drew-like ingénue, who solves the murder. As her aunt, Mickey Dandola was a bit too everyday for my tastes. I didn’t see much character emerge.

Some struck a relentless pose without modulating. Tracy Stolls, as the jilted girlfriend, was bitter and sarcastic from start to finish, often on overdrive. Steve Callahan, the star’s manager, was straightforward and cool, but needs to speak more articulately and to stop waving those arms up and down each time he speaks.

Some adopted a larger than life style, generally quite well. Laryssa Lauret, as the local wealthy eccentric who carried off the axe, displayed fine dramatic flair, seasoned after years of professional experience of stage and television. Donna Azerad, who was magnificent last fall as the prostitute in Douglaston Community Theatre’s “Nuts,” here revealed the same tragic stance and demeanor. She is a lovely woman, with expressive eyes and gestures. But apparently directors do make a difference. In “Nuts,” her rhythm and pace were impeccable, and each line was given deep meaning. Here her pace tended to meander. And how could her director allow her to say such melodramatically potent lines as “I could have cheerfully killed her,” as if she were chatting on the phone.

Several actors adopted parody, perhaps self-parody, as their style. Tara Pallen seemed like an “automatic actress” with a battery and switch. She expressed a range of emotions, as the put-upon gofer of the star, but the emotions all seemed to turn and off from the outside, never coming from within. I didn’t believe a word she said. Judy Vincent, as Hazel LaVerne, tried far too hard to be bitchy. The role is an apparent take-off on Joan Crawford, and all would-be star bitches would best study Madame Crawford a little closer to see that beneath the bitchy exterior, there was a soul in agony, who fascinated her audiences with her pain and personal tragedy. As the playwright, Chris Robin was a parody of a youngster reciting his lines on stage to please his family, speaking all his lines with an upturned chin and a grin, but he did so with clean diction and projection.

Peter Vrankovic as Bob, the male lead of the acting troupe, provided the most appealing characterization. He was totally at home with his roguish sleaze, both in his voice and physicality. However, his sudden shift in mood at the end of the piece comes out of the blue. Perhaps he and his director might have paced this aspect of his characterization to appear in phases, to gather momentum throughout rather than to explode from nowhere. Vrankovic was also recently featured as a sleaze in Parkside Players’ “Second Bananas,” and perhaps might search for other types of roles to stretch his characterizations.

Speaking of “Second Bananas,” a thin, wistful piece, not much better than “Murder Takes the Stage,” it is interesting to see how that production succeeded because of the authenticity and variety of its characters. Each member of the “Second Bananas” cast developed a believable character with shifting moods, all of which contributed to the momentum of the piece.

Theatre Time, on the other hand, needs to take a harder stand look at characterization in their actors. I have noted this in several of their recent productions. Tackling a difficult piece like “Witness for the Prosecution,” for example, requires more than saying lines with flair and feeling. Of course, a play of that quality almost sells itself, but when dealing with a piece of lesser significance, the need to look below the surface becomes all the more apparent. Characters need to be vivid and real so that an audience can buy what they are saying.

On opening night, an extra, unexpected gunshot at the finale sent the cast into a state of onstage titters. They were apparently enjoying the moment so thoroughly that the audience could not help but share it with them. As the director said, “Live theater, folks.” Live indeed — perhaps the most vivid and authentic moment of the evening!

Overall, however, if you are in the mood for a pleasant enough piece with an attractive cast, you might want to be part of the audience this coming weekend.

“Murder Takes the Stage” is being repeated this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Performances are at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, 15-43 149th Street, Whitestone Call 391-8697.

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