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2 Enduring Old Friends Show Up For Dinner, Evoking Memories : 'Whodunnit'

November 28, 1986|CHALON SMITH

"Whodunnit" at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse seems to have a hard time deciding what it wants to be.

During the first act, its aim is no less than a full-tilt spoof of a drawing room mystery--the type of snickering show that offers more laughs than clues. But by the second act, it seems intent on providing the audience with a virtually unadulterated deductive game--there are some gags, but the emphasis is on solving the murder. Unfortunately, it's not a graceful mix, and the shift in gears leaves the comic tone weakened and the plot muddled. Much, if not most, of the problem, however, can be attributed to the Anthony Shaffer script.

As with any thriller, "Whodunnit" increases the tension through a series of events that culminate with a murder. Revealing too much of the plot, of course, would ruin the game. It is safe to say, though, that several arch characters turn up at an English manor and appear to be compromised by an oily, insidious blackmailer. Their vexations are augmented by a beheading in the library. Everyone has a motive, and everyone is a suspect. Like other works in this genre, there are plenty of red herrings and tricky twists to confuse and confound.

Besides its inconsistent tone, this "Whodunnit" is troubled by some pretty hammy acting. Director Jim Ryan has everybody camping it up shamelessly, and the performances go over the edge almost from the first line. Most of the cast tries on accents (British upper crust and Cockney, even Greek) as if they were gaudy party hats, using them more as comic props than as aids to character development. It's all pretty distracting--a little restraint all around would have made for a more entertaining show and a satisfying climax.

This "Whodunnit" does have one very nice feature--its set. Designers Lonnie Alcaraz, Stan Wlasick and have evoked a musty and effete English drawing room full of leather-bound books and lordly pretense.

"Whodunnit" runs through Saturday at the Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. Information: (714) 650-5269.

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