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Deadly Murder from Theatre Suburbia: A Pastiche of Contradictions

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The setup:

A murder mystery combines suspense, humor, attempts at drawing-room comedy, bizarre twists, violence and sturdy actors in an unlikely medley offering something for everyone.

The execution:

While the audience must suspend considerable disbelief to enjoy this hybrid melodrama, just think what suspension the three actors must have had to undergo in the long weeks of rehearsal. The trio in this Theatre Suburbia production labor mightily, and each has some interesting moments, but the evening is such a pastiche of contradictions that authentic characterizations are hardly to be expected. If it seems as though the directors couldn't decide what they had, it is probably because the writer David Foley couldn't make up his mind, either.

The play opens as middle-aged but in-shape Camille Targus (Cheryl Tanner) emerges from the bedroom with muscular Billy (Adan Inteuz), younger than she by an Ashton Kutcher margin, and clad only in underwear. You can well imagine what they were doing -- and I imagine you will. Tanner undergoes substantial abuse: bondage, handcuffs, being toted around like a sack of meal, and a bad wig. The auburn wig covers a large part of her face, giving the impression that she is hiding from something -- her past, yes, but something else as well -- perhaps the plot? Tanner is a good sport, and probably as convincing as the script warrants. She carries the play on her shoulders, and I came to like her a lot, though I never could warm up to the wig.

Inteuz delivers the muscles, with a few tattoos thrown in, and his physicality and occasional snarls convey the requisite menace -- he is a villain, but wait, it's really just that he's bought into the American dream of being rich, and is willing to bend a few rules to get there. Inteuz rattles off his lines as though anxious to leave his Shakespearian training behind. His words to Camille, "I want us to spend some quality time together, to get to know you better...a whole lot better," should send chills down our collective spine, but instead has all the threat of a shopping list.

Taylor Biltoft rounds out the cast as Ted, a security guard, and his is the only name to be trusted, though little else about him is, as we soon discover. Biltoft earns his keep, too, providing yeoman service in pretending that the goings-on make sense. Though not credible in his poetic moment when he says, "He gave me hope," not even Laurence Olivier could make that ring true.

The plot -- I use the word with fire tongs -- contains expensive gems, stocks, ancient grudges, mistaken identities, unexpected liaisons, a gun changing hands and firing, a knife brandished and used, twist piled on twist until the poor burro of a play crumples to the ground. An additional mystery is where the directors -- Suzanne King, assisted by Jay Menchaca -- were during all this, perhaps the witness protection program?

Act Two contains what is intended as a huge surprise (though it can be seen coming from a mile away), but even this is marred by a suitcase purported to contain 180 pounds of dead weight being lifted with one hand, as though this were an X-Men movie. In the midst of considerable violence, there are, inexplicably, moments of quiet conversation between victim and predator, some echoes of Noel Coward, and I'm grateful that the Oedipal theme was contemplated but discarded.

There is one surprise that works, as near the end, a proposition is made that floored me. It is totally unexpected, and, while it makes no sense, I found it sweet in its naivete, and it returns the play to the theme of the American dream.

The play is not so much wrapped up as ended, as though playwright Foley's battery had died on his laptop. I may wake up tomorrow wondering if I really saw this play, wondering if it could just have been a dream, but certainly wondering why it was nominated in 2008 for an Edgar Award, given for distinguished work in the mystery genre. As usual at Theatre Suburbia, the set is attractive, appropriate and thoughtful.

The verdict:

It's best to leave your thinking cap at home, and savor instead an unlikely mélange of humor and violence, with considerable variety and some occasional charm.

Deadly Murder continues through February 4 at Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Drive. For information or tickets, call 713-682-3525 or visit www.theatresuburbia.org.

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