LONG BEACH — The plotting in "The Butler Did It," by Walter and Peter Marks, is so involved that it nearly murders itself with a full act of slow-moving exposition. Once under way, however, it's a humorous pretzel of a whodunit served up with clarity, if not inspiration, by the Long Beach Community Players.
A company of actors in New York are rehearsing a murder mystery under the aegis of author-director-producer Anthony J. Lefcourt, who desperately needs a hit. When one of his actresses tries to blackmail him into giving her a bigger role in the play, Lefcourt arranges a series of damning confrontations between the blackmailer and every other member of the company. In this way, Lefcourt carefully frames a gallery of suspects for a murder that he repeatedly attempts to execute himself. Not only is he determined to rid himself of the troublesome actress, but her death will be the publicity handle he needs to propel his play to popular success.
It's a plot full of fun twists, once it gets cooking in the second act. Unfortunately, the first hour is spent watching some painfully bad acting and meaningless business as the actors rehearse Lefcourt's play on Steven Jay Warner's underdressed, black-floored wasteland of a set.
It may be that the very specific humor of the New York theater scene is something that only New Yorkers or theater professionals can readily appreciate, but in any event, director Ken Rugg has failed to capture it. The talky, red-herring first act would be a challenge to the most consummate charmers, and it's simply beyond the skills of the solid but undistinguished cast in Long Beach.
The saving grace of the production is Duke Schneider in the role of Lefcourt. Although the only fine detail in Schneider's characterization of an aging New York Wunderkind director is a wonderfully over-chic pair of leather pants, he has a charm that grows exponentially with the intricacy of his machinations. He's unconvincing as an eccentric Machiavelli but has some delightful moments as a resourceful man scrambling to make his show a hit any way he can.
'The Butler Did It'
A Long Beach Community Players presentation of the murder mystery by Walter and Peter Marks. Directed by Ken Rugg. With Richard Huisman, Darrel Shephard, Linda Van Dine, Tiffany Terry, Duke Schneider, and Norm McBride. Scenic and lighting design by Steven Jay Warner. Performances Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. through Dec. 14. Matinee Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. At 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach. Tickets: $9 and $10. (310) 494-1616.