Mirth and Murder

The trouble with comedy is that, unlike drama, it has to make the unbelievable believable. Such is the case with John Bishop's The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. There's no point in discussing the plot to this nostalgic farce, which had a successful run in New York a few years ago. Here, style is everything. Bishop's snappy banter and slamming doors require impeccable timing, crisp pronunciation and no shouting -- especially in the intimate confines of a space such as Curtains Theater, which has chosen the play to open its '94-'95 season. Unfortunately, under Samm Hill's direction, too many of the cast members mistake loudness for energy, and in the early scenes some of them swallow their words. Their self-consciousness shows through. They have a tendency to go for the laughs, as the saying goes, instead of the tea.

Better to play it straight, as Guil Lunde does to marvelous effect in the role of Eddie, an aspiring actor. Lunde shuffles and shrugs, he scratches, he puzzles, he mugs. But he does something more. He projects charm and freshness beyond the comic's shtick. He has what directors call presence. You just like to see him on stage, and his appeal allows him to almost carry the show by himself.

If Lunde had come up in New York during the late '30s instead of in Houston during the early '90s, he might have done some vaudeville, where he would have perfected pratfalls and double takes and found a comic persona whose twitches and shrugs and scratches indicate a character perpetually unsure of himself and constantly amazed that things could work out well for him. He might have discovered something vital: how to be attentive and alive when other actors are speaking. He might have gotten a few second-banana parts in Broadway comedies, then gone off to Hollywood where directors would have responded well to his shambling, rangy body and his big attractive mug and offered him some juicy parts in comedies such as, oh, Arsenic and Old Lace.

Lunde might have been, in other words, Jack Carson, a reliable staple of 1940s filmmakers who Lunde resembles in both manner and mannerism. But Lunde isn't Carson; instead, he's finishing his last year in theater at the University of Houston and doing a fine job of reincarnating the late actor in The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.

From the moment Lunde ambles into a Broadway angel's country mansion, he embodies Carson's nervous aplomb. He thinks he's there to try out a new musical comedy for a rich woman. Then he discovers that he will be working with the creative principals of a Broadway flop in which three chorus girls have been slashed to death, one in Connecticut, one in Boston and the last in Philadelphia. Even the allure of an attractive blond chorus girl is not enough to keep him there. He's headed for the door with one shoe off and one shoe on.

But playwright Bishop has arranged for a raging blizzard to trap Eddie there with an assortment of theatrical types: a self-important director just back from making unreleased pictures in Hollywood, a dipsomaniacal lyricist, a flitty songwriter, a handsome Irish tenor with a peculiar accent, a female producer whose chief job is to butter up the angel and the angel herself, Elsa Von Grossenkneuten. To complete the cast, add a German maid or two, an undercover policeman and a slasher dressed like the Shadow, armed with a straight razor and knowledge of the mansion's secret passageways. And yes, there are Nazis.

The lights are blown out, phones are disconnected, secret passages are explored, bodies appear and disappear, the mystery is solved. Bishop has slickly typed each of his characters: the director can name every actor (e.g. Oscar Homolka, Merle Oberon, Elisha Cook Jr.) in his unreleased films, which the characters think they have seen (and you will too, if you're a certain age and watched old movies on television during the '50s and '60s); the songwriter has eyes for the tenor who lays on the Irish malarkey so thickly it must be a fraud; the lyricist can't keep out of the brandy and is inspired to write new lyrics under moments of stress; the producer plans to hold the opening-night cast party at Sardi's, and by charging the actors all a fee, figures she can break even; the maid appears to die in the first scene, but keeps coming back to the drawing room with a meat cleaver.

Not exactly art, maybe, but entertaining enough. Bishop's cleverest move is to eliminate the leading man, a good choice since they're usually so vapid and moralistic. For a change, the comic foil -- Eddie -- has a chance to get the girl.

That girl is played by Bronwyn Wallace, and as a chorine she has a natural charm. Like Lunde, she plays it straight, though she's not quite big enough a personality to make us believe that Eddie will fall for her.

But then again, given the way Lunde fills the stage, it might have been hard for any of the actresses to convince us they were a match for him. In his program notes, Lunde says that after he graduates from UH, he's shaving his head and going to Tibet to meditate. Maybe he'll find he is the reincarnation of Jack Carson. Except he's himself. Lunde ought to bypass Tibet and head straight to Hollywood to take his shot. He's a natural.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 runs through October 8 at Curtains Theater, 3722 Washington Avenue, 862-4548.


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