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The Wheels Fall Off in Act Two of Ravenscroft

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The set-up: Once again we are in a British country manor home, this one remote, as a mystery is probed by a police inspector, interrogating the five women in the all-female household of Ravenscroft. The manor is all female because the lord of the manor died several months before the action begins, and the solitary male employee has just perished as well, either by accident, or (shudder) murder!

The execution: This work may be the most schizophrenic I've ever seen, as the first act is a hugely conventional mystery drama, and the second act close to a French sex farce. The acting is superb, and director Rob Kimbro has succeeded in creating an authentic ensemble - that is the good news. The bad news is that in Act I nothing much happens, except that each of the ladies tells lies, and each seem to be hiding a secret. The secrets when revealed in Act Two turn out to be tedious.

Sean Patrick Judge plays Inspector Ruffing, and creates brilliantly the traditional stuffy, straight-arrow police official in Act One, but in Act Two fails to find the truth in the character as playwright Don Nigro compel him to get drunk, betray his lifelong values, and become an homme fatale. Laurence Olivier might have pulled this off, but it is surely an unfair burden for a playwright to place upon an actor.

At the top of the female hierarchy is Mrs. Ravenscroft, and Michelle Edwards creates an interesting character with considerable range and authority in Act One, but is compelled by the playwright to become a simpering coquette in Act Two. Her 17-year old daughter, Gillian, played by Zoquera Millburn, is excellent in both acts, since Gillian, though a compelling beauty, is a bit daft, like the play.

The governess, Marcy, is Austrian, and Claire Anderson brings a wonderful stage presence to the role, though she is given little to do except deliver boring lines. She carries her success almost to the end, though the unlikely final coda sabotages her as well, as she is made to discard her dignity, in a lame attempt by playwright Nigro to shoehorn in a romantic, heart-warming, sentimental moment - I mused "Has this playwright no shame?"

The servants are delicious. Karen Schlag plays Mrs. French, the housekeeper, glum to a fault, and in Act One hovering like a condor at the edge of the stage, as though waiting to pounce. When her true nature emerges in Act Two, it is a welcome relief to find she is as silly and flawed as the others. Last but by no means least is Dolly, the much-abused maid at the bottom of the hierarchy, and the young Kara Ray captures her panic and hysteria with such vivid certainty, in both acts, that she comes close to stealing the show. Brava!

There is also a ghost, but she is unseen, non threatening, and unnecessary, except as filler material. The most interesting character is the dead Patrick, who never appears onstage; I suggest the producers hire a stalwart young actor to take a bow, anyway, as Arsenic and Old Lace did on Broadway for its unseen murder victims.

The successive explanations for Patrick's death all seem much the same, as different as dominoes, each falling in turn. The final one is no more plausible than the others, so there is no click of recognition, no "Aha!" as the puzzle pieces fall into place and the mosaic emerges. Had the women been a coven of witches, and Inspector Ruffing been their next victim, it would have been more interesting.

Mildred's Umbrella does wonderful work, and last year's Large Animal Games was enchanting - I saw it twice. But the real mystery is why they elected to employ their great skills on this misbegotten work. Don Nigro has written six other plays featuring Inspector Ruffing, and has penned more than 300 plays, prolific indeed, and Samuel French, Inc. has published 135 of them.

The verdict: A boring but extremely well-acted Act One is followed by an implausible and silly Act Two. Excellent actors go a long way to salvage this travesty, but even they can't bail fast enough to save this leaky vessel.

Ravenscroft continues through May 18, from Mildred's Umbrella at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0409 or contact www.mildredsumbrella.com

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