If you relish a finely tuned, old-fashioned English-drawing-room murder mystery, the kind where everyone has a bloody good motive for doing the dastardly deed not once, but twice, mind you then you'll feel all cozy and warm with Theatre Suburbia's fine production of Jimmie Chinn's deadly puzzler, Take Away the Lady. This play is the company's most pulled-together staging this season.
Chinn, who is English, started out as an actor before writing radio plays and then moving to fully staged plays. He's had some minor success on London's West End (especially with his sex farce Straight and Narrow), but no luck with anything approaching a smash hit that would translate into a smash import, like an Ayckbourn or Stoppard. Generally, his plays, which are set in the industrial midlands of England, follow no great central theme. They're a mixed bag, from dreamy idylls to interpersonal family dramas to this one, an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery.
Set in a gloomy country house where tea is always served with fish-paste sandwiches and stiff upper-lip propriety, Chinn goes Christie one better by deftly incorporating the necessary exposition right at the start. Christie sometimes takes up the entire first act to set up her elaborate mousetrap plot machinery; Chinn simply begins.
Take Away the Lady
Theatre Suburbia, 1410 W. 43rd, 713-682-3525.
Through May 12. $10-$12.
Stern, dour, autocratic sister Lavinia Doubleday (Rebecca Pipas Seabrook), who runs the family manse as if it's an army installation, has called the family together for an ominous announcement. The sisters don't get along, and the sarcasm and tension between them cuts to the bone. Mousy Emma (Candyce Prince), who plays her beloved card game Patience with the determination of a serial killer, seems somewhat loose around the brain. Acid-tongued Celia (Stacy Ann Spaeth), who escaped the family years ago by marrying sweet, attentive Richard (Tony D'Armata), paces and smokes nervously, wanting to get out of the oppression as soon as possible; she's in high dudgeon having to await the arrival of supercilious sister-in-law Gilda (Julie Dietrich), who's carried on a fulfilling social life while her hubby is conveniently away. No one likes her, either.
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And what, pray tell, is Lavinia's great message? Why, that brother Matthew (Kerry Jones), Gilda's husband, is "coming home" at last. It's not so much that he's arriving, but where he's been that's the problem. After 15 years, he's out of prison, having served his sentence for murdering dear Mother, whom he pushed off the balcony during a heated argument about finances. This news sets the dysfunctional, batty family flying. What complicates matters further is Matthew's resolute insistence on his innocence. If he didn't do it, who did? It had to be someone in this house, for they were all living here at the time of the murder. But, of course, Matthew's not to be completely ruled out as a suspect, for he's been a liar all his life, and a bounder to boot, squandering the family fortune and acting the wastrel before the "accident."
The murderer could be any one of them. Even the dotty father (Gene Griesbach) isn't above suspicion, because, years ago, he forgave wayward Mom her many lovers and took her back or did he? The audience goes along for this twisty ride, never knowing who's telling the truth and trying to stay one step ahead of the story. Then, in perfect fashion, to really bollix things up, as they say in this type of English crime-school drama, there's a second murder. Lovely.
Smoothly directed by Barbara Hartman, the play's embodied by an excellent ensemble cast who react to each other as if they really are members of the same nutty family. The proper English accents come and go, but who cares when the plot's so deliciously spun? In proper convention, clues are dropped when least expected, and we're kept unbalanced by numerous red herrings and things hidden in plain sight.
With his blond charmer's looks, Jones, as prodigal son Matthew, is especially riveting he could step into a dressing gown by Nol Coward just as easily as he could emerge from a biplane in Out of Africa. He's matched by Seabrook, who, as ramrod-straight Lavinia, seems as constricted inside as her tightly-coiled coif outside, and by Prince, who, as flighty airhead Emma, may not be as distracted as she seems. It's all a clever game of cat and mouse on Chinn's layered chessboard, with eventually one big cat and a lot of rats.