Stage murder mysteries are notoriously uncompromising, where information must appear precisely on time. Take, for example, when a telephone rings and an important revelation we did not previously know arrives to help solve the mystery. Kidding the conventions of murder mysteries can offer a wider comic range. Perhaps the prop phone has been left offstage, or it’s in the right place but misses the cue to ring. Or the listening actor picks up the phone and gets the information just as the bell starts ringing two minutes too late. The wealth of possibilities of what can go wrong is what drives The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery.
Slay ride: Karen Alexander and John G. Seavers in Onondaga Hillplayers’ Farndale Avenue Murder Mystery.
This spoof is not so much about the genre as it is about the kind of company producing it: roughly speaking, community theaters. Townswomen’s guilds are found all over Britain, known for putting on amateur theatricals to raise money for charities. This sounds high-minded enough, but the various guilds are widely known for warring egos, a vanity that suggests “I can do that,” regardless of acting ability and technical competence. Which makes them ripe for comedy.
David McGillivray and Walter Zerlin Jr. began their series of 10 Farndale Avenue comedies at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1975 with The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society’s Production of Macbeth, and continued through The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Operatic Society’s Production of The Mikado in 1991. Murder Mystery appeared in 1980, after the first wave of the series’ success.
Thousands of Farndale Avenue shows have been produced all over Britain, Europe and even in such exotic venues as Saudi Arabia and Zambia, but they have not done well in penetrating the American market. Veteran community theater actor and director Robert “Tank” Steingraber has been trying to remedy this in recent years. Two previous productions have been shot down before the opening curtain. On a third try Steingraber has connected with producers Jack and Doris Skillman’s once-a-year Onondaga Hillplayers show at the Inn of the Seasons, 4311 W. Seneca Turnpike.
The limited space available at the end of a dining room, with impromptu lighting and no dressing rooms, serves Steingraber well. If a piece of the set falls to the floor and is reinstalled upside down, the audience might wonder if this is really a gag. Which, of course, is the gag.
Farndale Avenue feels like a deranged version of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, minus the backstage intrigue. A chief difference is that in Farndale Avenue nothing ever goes right. Actors forget their lines or deliver them without expression, props are always in the wrong place or never appear and at the time of the murder, the wrong body is stabbed. Often this leads to a kind of Magritte-like absurdism, as when a prop wine glass can’t be found and is substituted by a tennis ball.
There is something resembling an Agatha Christie plot under all of this. The Farndale ladies are performing Murder at Checkmate Manor, with characters that include a rich dowager and an eccentric archaeologist (both Kelley Loen-Witter) and a beyond-the-bloom ingenue (Colleen O’Brien). As townswomen’s guilds want women to play all roles, Marcia Mele portrays both a butler and a mustachioed colonel; during a frenzied costume change offstage, she shouts out dialogue for both of them. Karen Alexander appears as an American-accented presenter and later as a French maid in an ill-fitting wig and as a jodhpur-wearing horsewoman.
In her curtain speech Alexander’s presenter apologizes for being short of female performers, requiring the company to draft the inexperienced Gordon Pugh (John G. Seavers), who delivers the most florid lines devoid of emotion. It’s like playing Lina Lamont in Singing in the Rain, such hard work to be bad. Seavers’ characters maintain the most consistent British accents, which may or may not be in the script.
As with so many British comedies, Farndale Avenue is rife with puns, many of them deriving from the chessboard: Mrs. Knight, Mrs. Bishop, a servant named Pawn. Every so often these stumble into double entendres: “I know who the killer is, and in five minutes he will expose himself in front of you.”
In the most disarming scene, however, things go right, at least for a while. After the company has been asked to assemble, each player begins to move a chair in a tightly choreographed ballet of who will sit where. Everyone moves quickly, never bumping into one another, always on the right marker. Only at the end, poof! All the chairs are gone and no one can sit.
Every player gets a goodly share of laughs, but Kelley Loen-Witter essays five roles and also rattles the timbers with a theatrical cackle that would shatter glass. ❏
This production runs through Sunday, March 9. See Times Table for information.