Three Murders and It's Only Monday a Delightful Send-Up of the Mystery Genre

The setup: Prolific playwright Pat Cook, a resident of Houston, knows the mystery genre to a fare-thee-well, and spoofs it entertainingly in Three Murders and It's Only Monday. Revered conventions are shattered to smithereens, as the fourth wall is not only breached, it is assaulted with devastating comic force.

The execution: Detective Harry Monday dominates the proceedings and is fortunately well played by Christopher Roney. Roney creates the desired film noir ambience, and he sports a worn fedora with a snap brim as though he was born wearing it. Down on his luck (we all have bad patches in our economic lives), the fact that his pants deliberately don't match the jacket (they're not even close) captures perfectly his financial straits. But he is as adept at ferreting out killers as he is in marching downstage to a well-placed side thrust to brief the entranced audience on developments. The audience is not only loyal, it verges on devout -- a recurring plot event is a generator failure that darkens the stage, and when this occurs the audience bursts into applause as though an especially well-played scene had just ended. This is not always the case, as some of the performers are better than the others, and a tone of woodenness occasionally mars the goings-on.

The acting, rather than being ensemble, has the tone of "every man for himself"; since this is a satire, this works better than one might expect. The plot -- of course -- involves a will and beneficiaries being killed. The dialogue is deliberately obtuse -- one example will suffice: A scream is heard. "What was that?!" "A scream." Joey Hancock had an admirable enthusiasm as an American Indian, and Glenn Ropiequet had a powerful stage presence as Dr. Morrissey. Crystal Stampes found her evil twin in a bravura ending involving a knife pointed directly at an audience member. Cheryl Mills wore long white gloves with aplomb but was given little to do. One actor had movie-star looks, but not a glimmering of how to project her voice for the stage. The entire cast was adept at ducking for cover or hitting the floor whenever a gun was brandished, which was often. And the yearning to break the fourth wall themselves is realized in a hilarious passage. The proceedings were directed by Larry Ransberger, who found the humor.

The verdict: Entertaining. Sit back and savor (this is a spoof and not Agatha Christie), and even the awkward moments will surprise and possibly delight.

Through Aug. 20, Playhouse 1960, 6814 Gant Rd, 281-587-8243.

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