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Mystery at the Raven Borrowed From Britain

The director says 'Intent to Murder' unfolds like a game of chess. The group has plans for a series of classic U.K. thrillers.

September 19, 1996|T.H. McCULLOH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's always room in the American imagination for a good old-fashioned thriller. Perry Mason still thrives in reruns. And the westward flow of British-produced mysteries continues, with the shows appearing now on several cable stations as well as on PBS.

In the United Kingdom, mysteries and thrillers are an even bigger part of the warp and woof of entertainment. It's been going on for a very long time there, a sort of national institution. Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" has been playing continuously for half a century, and new mysteries are always welcomed by audiences. Even older models keep coming back.

One of those, Leslie Sands' "Intent to Murder," was first produced in Bristol in 1949. It had its latest major revival in 1985 at the London Theatre Guild. It was also turned into a 1951 film called "Another Man's Poison," as a vehicle for Bette Davis. It wasn't one of Davis' more sterling efforts, but the play's fascination survived the film version.

A new revival of "Intent to Murder" is opening Friday at the NoHo District's Raven Playhouse. The plot concerns a romance novelist who has killed her criminal husband and has to contend with his accomplice in crime to cover up her deed. And it takes a nosy, puzzle-fanatic neighbor to untangle the whole thing, sort of like a chess game methodically playing itself out.

The chess metaphor made the property fascinating to actress Suzzy London, who plays the novelist, and her director, Charles Rome Smith.

"The audience," Smith said, "can take home with them the delight you get from a chess game, that you're engaged intellectually, but you're also engaged viscerally. What's coming next? What's the next move?"

Compared to the British, there is a real dearth of mysteries in major American theaters. But such comparisons are unfair, Smith said, since British children and teenagers are raised to be theatergoers, and mysteries are part of that tradition.

London thinks the play is fun.

"There's a kind of energy between the cast members doing this sort of play," she said. "And there's a much more visceral response than with some of the headier plays, which deal more with the intellect. You can feel the panic, the fear, the passion. The audience goes right along with you as you go through these things. That's why we're doing this in the first place."

Smith added that the small Raven venue is just right for establishing the intimacy necessary to this type of entertainment. It keeps the audience close to the mayhem. The group, he says, has plans for a continuing series of classic British thrillers to be produced there.

* "Intent to Murder," Raven Playhouse, 5233 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 27. $15. (213) 466-1767 or (818) 953-9993.


Kidding Around: British kids aren't the only ones being exposed to theater at a young age. Theater for young people abounds in this country, and very visibly in the San Fernando Valley.

One of the popular ongoing children's theater troupes is Theatre West's Storybook Theatre, a group that provides original works aimed at the young. Beginning Saturday they will be presenting a new musical version of the classic children's story "The Emperor's New Clothes." It has a book by Lloyd J. Schwartz and David Wechter, with original music by Phil Orem.

Director Barbara Mallory Schwartz said the production provides for a great deal of audience participation. There will be opportunities to sing along during the show, an audience fashion parade before the unembarrassed King, then the King's own fashion parade in his invisible clothes, with audience members carrying his cloak's invisible train.

In the original story, the King did not notice that he was in the altogether when wearing his new clothes.

"In this one we do funny underwear," Schwartz says, allaying any fears that the tale may not be G-rated. "Funny boxers with happy faces and socks with old-fashioned garters like men used to wear. We went back and forth deciding what the King should wear, but we settled for funny underwear. We have to have a little bit of discretion here."

* "The Emperor's New Clothes," Storybook Theatre, Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles. 1 p.m. Saturdays. Runs indefinitely. $8. (818) 761-2203.

On a More Serious Note: The Valley-based L.A. Troupe Theatre-in-Education is one of the companies that stage abbreviated Equity Shakespearean productions at L.A. schools. They plan to begin a two-month tour with a new version of their thoughtful "The Traveling Burn and Fire Safety Show," a staple of theirs for many years. This edition is called "Let's Hear It for Fire Safety--Test Your Detector and Plan Your E.D.I.T.H." (That stands for Exit Drills in the Home.)

The tour, which is being presented in school classrooms and at assemblies, began Tuesday in Ventura and continues through Oct. 3. From Oct. 14 to Nov. 1, the group will be appearing throughout the Glendale school system.

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