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THEATER REVIEW : 'Murder': Dumb on Arrival at Backstage

July 27, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — The first life of Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick's comedy "Murder at the Howard Johnson's" was quite deadly.

The play endured a last-minute change of directors, with Marshall Mason replacing Paul Sills, the father of Story Theatre. (Both odd choices for the job, in retrospect.)

Then, four performances after it opened at New York's Golden Theatre in May, 1979, it closed--despite a dream comedy cast of Tony Roberts, Bob Dishy and Joyce Van Patten.

With that much talent, it must have been the play's fault. Then again, you never know. With 14 years distance, and a new venue at the Backstage Theatre, it's easier to put things in perspective.

Director Al Valletta's staging, from word one, makes us aware that Clark and Bobrick meant their play to be as dumb as it really is, rather than trying to hide things behind a psychological or socially relevant window screen.

"Murder at the Howard Johnson's" (in which the lodging chain's name is never mentioned) virtually celebrates its dumbness, even aiming at the kind of guilty-pleasure status movies target. It's a comedy for adults, make no mistake, but with a double warning: Leave your children and brain at home.

The plot hinges on all three points of a love triangle over the span of three acts. But don't think this formal elegance puts it in Alan Ayckbourn territory.

While Ayckbourn would identify with the roiling undercurrents disturbing the threesome--Arlene (Kathryn Luster) cheating on husband Paul (Michael Cahill) with dentist Mitchell (Pete Taylor)--he would never have the lovers trying to kill the husband in the first five minutes.

That makes this an American comedy, one that values cutting to the chase. We can value this, too, especially if it leads in unexpected directions. Clark and Bobrick lay out directions galore; they're even unexpected. (We won't report how.)

In fact, they're so unexpected that they're deliberately moronic, which doesn't have to be a bad thing either.

Think about some of those "I Love Lucy" episodes in which Lucy tries to outmaneuver Ricky, or half the French border patrol. Funny-dumb can end up funny, so long as the playing keeps us laughing. The phrase it only hurts when you think was invented for comedy like this.

But can we really not think about why it's taking Mitchell forever to knock off Paul? Or vice-versa? And isn't it awfully convenient to have a ledge outside the windows for the fight scene? (Or, in Pete Taylor and Rebecca May's Howard Johnsonized set, a window that swings like a door?)

Dazzling performances would blind you to all of this, yet it's unfair to everyone for a play to succeed only because the actors do the trick brilliantly. (That's ultimately what is so off-putting, for example, about Ira Levin's over-plotted murder mysteries.)

These actors manage things only moderately well and fall far short of tricking us into not thinking.

Cahill is the surest, playing plain, gray-suited Paul in fine deadpan; he's the guy to whom things always happen, which makes it funnier when he initiates homicidal plans.

Cahill's Paul may come off as more of a middle-management type than the used-car salesman he's supposed to be, but then, the playwrights failed to inject enough slime into Paul to make him a credible used-car salesman.

Luster's and Taylor's problems are just the opposite: They have too much slime to handle and contend with it by delivering their jerky characters as a series of poses.

Indeed, Taylor's Mitchell feels much more the Cal Worthington sort, down to his loud plaid suits and leers. Luster's Arlene is so confused and unappealing that we question if she's worth dying over, though it's next to impossible for any actor to play Lady Macbeth in one scene and a bedazzled cult groupie in another. Luster can recall, of all people, Jack Benny and his stone-faced look, and she really milks the funny, uncredited costumes she wears.

But the effort of pulling off this near-impossible assignment shows, and you understand why this comedy died the first time. With plenty of fine comedies to choose from, why revive the unrevivable?

* "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," Backstage Theatre, 1599 Superior Ave., Costa Mesa. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 28. $12-$15. (714) 646-0333. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Kathryn Luster: Arlene Miller

Pete Taylor: Mitchell Lovell

Michael Cahill: Paul Miller

A Backstage Theatre production. Written by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. Directed by Al Valletta. Set: Pete Taylor and Rebecca May. Production stage manager: Michelle Martinez.

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