Murder at the Howard Johnson's a Middling Success

The set up: The title says a lot: Murder at the Howard Johnson's. It has no pretense to glamour, like Murder on the Orient Express, but instead suggests a middle-brow, ho-hum, minor effort, and that's what Theatre Suburbia delivers. Farces are not meant to be taken seriously, and this apparently gave the authors Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick the idea that nothing need be plausible - they followed this mis-direction off the cliff of comedy. Murder is treated as a light-hearted lark, as a potential victim offers to be tied up, and another cheerfully mounts a chair to be hanged.

As you might expect, antics interrupt actual mayhem so the title might better be Poorly Imagined Musings about Murder at the Howard Johnson's. I'd hate to live in that unnamed town, where the first thought about any problem is the gun or the noose.

The execution: Two of the three actors managed to give interesting performances and made the most of their material. Bob Galley plays a dentist having an affair with a married woman, and I believed in his infatuation and liked his way with delivering a comic line - though I did wish there were more of them. Mike McDermott played the cuckolded husband, and brought a strong stage presence and some acting chops, creating a human being with dignity caught up in a situation beyond his control.

Only Suzanne King, miscast as a femme fatale and the object of adoration, failed to convince. She carried the narrative but not the heart. She may have sensed that she was traveling on a freighter and not an ocean liner, and that a genuine effort wasn't worth the trouble. Whatever the reason, the part calls for a zany enthusiasm a la Goldie Hawn, and instead we get a fairly ponderous approach, without much charm.

The direction by Paul Hager, assisted by Judith Mallernee, served the production well, though the tendency of actors to walk downstage to face the audience at crucial moments - to make sure we see the acting? - might be curtailed. As usual with Theatre Suburbia, the set is handsome and works well, and the lighting is unobtrusive and effective.

The verdict: Artistic Director Elvin Moriarty, who designed the lighting, might ponder the difficulties of a farce - often too fragile to survive miscasting - it can just lie there like a failed souffle, and even dedication and talent can't make it rise to expectations. Theatre Suburbia's last two productions created strong interest and some theatrical magic, so this production looks like a temporary departure from a high standard.

Through July 2, Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525.

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Jim Tommaney