In the Houston premiere of Artifice, playwright Anne Flanagan hews closely to the conventions of the comedic mystery genre, providing eight vivid and very varied characters invited to a private showing of art, but trapped into an overnight stay thanks to a blizzard. The execution:
Hosting the gathering is Maggie LaRue (Lindsay Smith), whose estranged husband, a talented painter, has perished, and she and his art Dealer, Richard (Christopher C. Conway) hope to sell his art - all of it - to a wealthy hotelier, Mick Fitzgerald (Jim Wyatt) to install in his chain of hotels. But, hold on just a minute, Mick may have underworld connections, and may be dangerous. Upon this thin thread hangs the alleged plot.
Drinks are graciously served by Graciela (Sabrina Rosales), substitute bartender and cook from a service, and garbed as though fresh from a Playboy Club audition - yes, this is a comedy.
Trent Matlock (David James Barron) portrays a self-centered actor who has been dating the widow LaRue. Emma (Amesti Reioux) is an art critic with a sullen pout, but she has a surprise for us in Act Two. Judith Fontaine (Heather Gabriel) is an influential publisher whose article on the sale may put Richard's gallery on the map. Cory Grabenstein portrays- well, it's a surprise and you won't have it spoiled by me - but his late entrance puts the creaky wheels of plot into motion.
The work is intended to be merely fun, and succeeds at this. I became convinced that each actor felt the play was really about him or her, which is probably ideal for the genre. Barron brought a ready smile and an ingratiating, cheerful persona to his role, making the self-centeredness of an actor an occupational hazard rather than a character flaw. Smith as the hostess held it all together with unfazed aplomb as the forces of evil gathered in Act Two, where deceptions were unmasked.
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Conway as the art dealer has remarkable diction and projection, and I admired them both. His reactions were nuanced and intense, and his pantomime in one scene was brilliant, but his volume was twice that of any other character on stage, as though calling a regiment to order. All the actors had their moments, and performed well, and the set, by Elvin Moriarty and Judy Reeves, was detailed and interesting, as is usual with Theatre Suburbia.
I couldn't help but wish playwright Flanagan had found a way to avoid the great cliché of midnight skulking, as nefarious dealings are interrupted by characters entering on the flimsiest of pretexts. Yes, they come, one after another, in dreary procession, predictable and no longer even amusing, and one had a double entrance. Judy Reeves directed the comedy, assisted by Susan O'Connor, and they have done much to find the humor. The pace sparkles in Act One, but sags occasionally in Act Two. The verdict:
Not much suspense, in a hugely implausible plot, but a lot of comedy enlivens the stage as eight disparate characters meet, scheme, entertain, and pursue their conflicting goals as a blizzard forces them into unwonted intimacy.
Artifice continues through May 11 at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr. For ticketing or information, call 713-682-3525 or contact www.theatresuburbia.org.