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A Most Silly Mystery: “The Games Afoot” in Whittier

Members of the cast of WTC's "The Game's Afoot" commune over a mystery [photo: Avis Photography]

Members of the cast of WTC’s “The Game’s Afoot” commune over a mystery [photo: Avis Photography]

In 2012, a send-up of the mystery genre by famed comic playwright Ken Ludwig, “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays” won the Edgar from the Mystery Writer’s of America for Best Play. Ludwig, best known for delightfully ridiculous farces like “Lend Me a Tenor,” took that same approach to the classic whodunit, peppering it with references to Sherlock Holmes and his creator, and to Shakespeare. The resulting mashup is now on display at Whittier Community Theater, as the closeout to their 94th season, and it’s a hoot.

Based, in some measure, on the historic figure William Gillette, a famed American actor who became synonymous with Sherlock Holmes around the turn of the last century, the play is set in his castle-like estate in Connecticut. It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, and Christmas Eve. Members of his “Sherlock Holmes” company have come to join him for the holiday, as he recovers from having been shot at the end of a production his iconic play, by a still unknown someone in the audience. Then a most unpleasant theater critic/columnist arrives, sparking ire, unwrapping secrets and generally turning the house on its ear. What will happen next?

Norman Dostal makes a jovial Gillette, relaxed and carefree until the various disasters strike. Kathryn Hunter has fun as Gillette’s fussy and overprotective mother, while Justin Patrick Murphy vibrates with a kind of macho frailty as his fellow actor and best friend. Kensington Hallowell offers a somewhat brittle but practical rendition of this friend’s actress wife. Jay Miramontes and Amanda Joyce round out the house party as the young, recently wedded members of the troupe who carry secrets of their own.

Kerri Malmgren seems to be having the most fun of anyone in the company as the snotty and totally obnoxious columnist, whose mishap sparks much of the action and all of the best comedic moments. Candy Beck becomes the unexpected and rather distractible female detective who descends upon them all as the plot unfolds. All these characters not only deal with a genuine mystery, which has layers itself, but in the farcical silliness which ensues when there is a need to hide a body.

Indeed, under the direction of Suzanne Frederickson, the mystery – though interesting – takes a back seat to those farcical elements, as the piece is often very funny. The pacing is good and the director’s own elaborate stage design offers all the right bits to heighten the humor and move the story along. Costumer Nancy Tyler’s dependence on rather generic formalwear may not be exactly period (the piece is set in 1936) but isn’t exactly out of period either. In short, the whole thing works pretty well, right down to the startling, and very funny surprise ending.

Also possibly interesting to a theatrical historian, the production makes use of elements the real Gillette introduced into the American theatrical landscape: a realistic, fully working set, and sound and lighting effects (in this case, lightning and thunder) to contribute to the sense of drama. Gillette, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually retired from acting in 1932, was considered the first realistic American stage actor. This creates a bit of extra humor for those in the know, as farce as a genre is never very high on realism, nor can its characters be.

So, go take a look. “The Game’s Afoot” is a lighthearted romp, with a couple of interesting plot twists and a lot of humor. It will make a good, and economical way to entertain oneself on a warm summer night.

What: “The Game’s Afoot” When: Through June 18, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

“Rumors” Has It… Mostly… in Whittier

The men of Whittier Community Theatre's "Rumors" use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

The men of Whittier Community Theatre’s “Rumors” use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

In the long and impressive line of theatrical comedies by Neil Simon, few really qualify as farces. To be a farce the story isn’t really about rounded people, but about the silly juxtaposition of persons in compromising situations with unforeseen events. For Simon, the comedy was usually more organic, even when the results were very silly: the people and their personalities underscored the humor. Indeed, as his career progressed, it was much more about the people than the laughter and the plays became more real, more nuanced, and more powerful.

However, Simon did write one genuine, door-slamming, mistaken-identity-filled farce. Now that play, “Rumors” is at the Whittier Community Theatre, and the results are – for the most part, anyway – just as funny as they should be. The actors play the over-the-top characters with great energy and style. The setting is as fraught with exhausting drama as it should be, and the results are very funny. If, on occasion, the pacing of the comedic lines slows a bit, that is something that can be overcome.

Four couples arrive, in stages, at the home of a fifth couple having an anniversary celebration. Mystery ensues, as the help has disappeared, as has the woman of the house, and her husband is found upstairs, offstage, stunned and bleeding from a gunshot wound. As the first couple to arrive tries to cover for the disaster, gradually aided or thwarted by the rest as they arrive, the misconstructions, fabrications and frustrations wrap the eight guests in a series of ridiculous situations. And then the police arrive.

This whole silliness is led in every way by Jay Miramontes and Michelle Pedersen as the Gormans, first uncovering the mystery then balancing hair brained schemes with careful coverups, aided on occasion by more than enough vodka and a real sense of performance polish. Kerri Malmgren and Jason Falske provide the next comic element as a calm society woman and her husband, so obsessed over the accident which has damaged his brand new Mercedes the house’s mysteries are just an additional frustration.

The warm and homey Cleta Cohen and Richard DeVicariis provide the practical element, comparatively nonplussed by the silly situation and focused on more basic needs of the rest of the thwarted party-goers. Michael Moore and most particularly Lindsay Marsh provide yet one more layer as the politician who can’t be associated with the obviously developing scandal and his paranoid wife devoutly sure her husband is full of scandals anyway.

Under the direction of Justin Patrick Murphy, this silly piece starts just a bit slow, but seems to rev up as the stage fills. Every once in a while someone, particularly Moore, seems to wait just a bit long in a play whose lines must consistently appear with whipcrack speed, but the comedy definitely wins out and the characterizations are strong and a lot of fun. Kudos to Amy Miramontes for gathering clothing just right for the kind of evening these characters are expecting and the kind of people they are. The costumer doubles, along with Andy Kresowski, as the stern and precise police duo who show up trying to sort out the craziness.

In short, this “Rumors” is a lot of fun. I admit to being rather a fan of farces, as a particularly carefree way to slough off the pressures of the everyday. This one is definitely worth a look, and, in the hands of this company of players, stays satisfyingly silly to its unpredictable but equally funny end.

What: “Rumors” When: Through June 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 7 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 Adults, $10 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

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