The laughs burst from the audience like hot slugs from a .38. Onstage, that intrepid if somewhat doltish hero, Bullshot Crummond, had once again outwitted his mortal foe, the nefarious Otto Von Brunno. But we could be sure their paths would cross again, all too soon.
This is, after all, the deathless (and seemingly endless) spoof of detective/adventure stories, "Bullshot Crummond." It's a nonstop barrage of cornball gags and cliches drawn from every shamus epic from "The Maltese Falcon" to "Bulldog Drummond."
And it's oddly appropriate for my turf, the shadowy world of the Theater Beat, where lives and careers are measured out in short runs. Following a tip from a stoolie in the box office, I had stumbled into the trap set by the show's creators, the justly named Low Moan Spectacular comedy revue that originated in London and spawned such perennial dinner theater favorites as "Footlight Frenzy" and "El Grande de Coca Cola."
Ron House, Diane (Diz) White, Alan Shearman, John Neville-Andrews and Derek Cunningham were the unindictable co-conspirators in this plot to eliminate plot from the thinking man's vocabulary. And they succeeded fiendishly.
By intermission, I made a beeline for a Perrier on the rocks. ("Make mine a double," I told the barkeep.) For the first time I found myself wishing I'd been slipped a Mickey Finn--maybe it would have induced the right state of mind to appreciate this relentless assault on the higher cognitive faculties.
And yet a mystery loomed behind all the vapid slapstick. Why would the prestigious Ensemble Theatre--an Equity signatory company with a reputation for quality, cutting-edge work--be staging a play so obviously pandering to witless comedy? There was an important lesson in here somewhere, if I could just get some answers.
I began my investigation with the shifty cast of characters.
First, there was Crummond himself, played with unflagging swagger by Ben Bottoms. Too good to be true, this one. Were it not for his lapses of nearly unfathomable stupidity one could suspect that behind his stalwart facade Crummond was playing a double game. But no--too flaky. The real brains behind this operation lay elsewhere.
Perhaps Von Brunno, his nemesis. Actor Christopher Vore shaved his head for the role and created a deliciously despicable portrait of villainy. Vore's most memorable sequence comes in a dialogue with himself playing a peripheral character, moving between opposite sides of the stage and accompanied by lightning-fast costume changes as he passes behind a central screen. No--too obvious.
His mistress, the svelte, exotic Lenya, seemed a more likely suspect. She is given little to do except pad around after Von Brunno and drool over Crummond, a waste of actress Nancy Nufer's obvious comic talents. She must be hiding something. Yet despite the limitations of the role, too funny.
Then there was the lovely Rosemary Fenton, played with doe-eyed insouciance by Dena Anderson. Despite Crummond's dismissal of her as a helpless damsel in distress, she comes up with flashes of brilliance that save them from certain death. Unappreciated by Crummond, perhaps, but not by the audience. But alas, too pretty.
There was always the old standby--the butler. Or the daffy professor. Or the jealous Inspector Scabbard of Scotland Yard. Or Crummond's best friend, Algy. Or the villain's hunchbacked henchman. Take your pick--they're all played by James Adams in a dizzying array, though each lacks the nuance achieved in the other actors' roles. Too fragmented.
That left the director, the reclusive Robert G. Weiss, last seen putting the finishing touches on a bag of staging tricks that include an airplane crash and a car going over a cliff (both ingeniously rendered with models and voice-overs), and a moment of supreme bathos when a stuffed falcon nabs Crummond's stuffed carrier pigeon in midair. Weiss was clever--maybe too clever. I felt certain he was calling the shots.
So I knew who, but not why. I left the theater no closer to a reason for this choice of idiotic material than when I'd entered. But as I stopped at the drinking fountain, the plink of water droplets in the basin rang out like coins in a cash register, and I remembered the consistent laughter from the audience and the double curtain call. Bingo! I had my answer--the almighty buckaroo.
Turning up the collar on my trench coat, I headed into the starless wind. I thought of all the creative energy expended on "Bullshot Crummond," talent that could have been used on plays with wit, charm and substance. As if in answer, the wind whispered, "Forget it, Jake--it's Theater Beat."
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Bullshot Crummond" will be performed through Sept. 7, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. at the Ensemble Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara St., in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $14 Fridays and Saturdays, $12 Thursdays and $10 Sundays. Call (805) 962-8606 for reservations or further information.