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THEATER : Murder, He Wrote : George M. Cohan's 1913 comedy thriller 'Seven Keys to Baldpate' opens tonight at Group Repertory Theatre.

February 05, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes regularly about theater for The Times.

The play may be 80 years old, but Malcolm Atterbury Jr. claims that the laughs are just as fresh as ever.

"Really, it's needed no changes whatsoever," said the director, who's staging George M. Cohan's 13-character comedy thriller "Seven Keys to Baldpate" (1913), opening tonight at Group Repertory Theatre in North Hollywood. The story, which Atterbury has set in 1938, takes place in the dead of winter in a supposedly deserted resort in the Adirondacks, where mystery writer William Hallowell Magee has come to make good on a bet that he can write a novel in 24 hours.

An atmospheric set immediately greets the audience upon entering the theater.

"The lobby of the resort is bathed in moonlight, the wind is howling-- howling, " noted Atterbury. "The writer supposedly has the only set of keys. But suddenly, everyone starts to show up. The crooked president of a railroad company who's trying to bribe the crooked mayor. A lovely young girl who's a reporter for a local paper. A hermit who wanders around the hills in the sheet scaring the tourists."

Christopher Winfield plays the writer of mystery novels, which at the time were referred to as "penny dreadfuls."

"It's great fun," said the actor, who is a member of Group Rep. "Magee is a quick thinker and a quick talker, always piecing things together. That's the kind of actor I am: I like to keep ahead of the audience. This is one of those rapid-fire pieces, and we play it that way. It reminds me of the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s like 'Arsenic and Old Lace.' A big part of the challenge is for us to keep that pace going, move at a really fast clip."

The son of an actor, Atterbury grew up in Beverly Hills, but rejected acting early on ("too many horror stories around the dinner table"), opting instead for a stint in the Army in Special Services and directing theater in Germany.

Later, he spent 15 years in television as a script supervisor and technical consultant, and worked as a film distributor for eight years. He has also taught acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena and the University of La Verne.

A three-year member of Group Rep, the director admits that he didn't know anything about "Seven Keys" until Group Rep's artistic director, Lonny Chapman, suggested that he read it.

"I found it absolutely delightful," said Atterbury, whose 75 directing credits include a staging of "Little Murders" at the Century City Playhouse. "We hope that the audience sits there with wide grins on their faces. But we're calling it a mystery thriller, because there's a certain line it has to be played at--a deep seriousness. There are no jokes or punch lines or villains in black capes, that kind of melodrama. But there's a wonderful touch of tongue-in-cheek, a touch of camp."

Where and When What: "Seven Keys to Baldpate." Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Closes March 13. Price: $8-$10. Call: (818) 768-8921.

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