Any case-cracking gumshoe could tell you: There's a danger in being too clever. The best-laid plans of mice and men -- or, in the case of Rupert Holmes' "Accomplice," the well-wrought playwriting plan of a man skewering "Mousetrap" and its stage-thriller ilk -- will leave clues that prove their undoing.
Holmes' unfolding contraption at the Colony Theatre in Burbank doesn't lack for twists -- most of which I'm duty-bound not to reveal. I'll say only this: From the second we glimpse Desma Murphy's wittily overstuffed country-house set, which could almost serve for the first act of "Noises Off," we can intuit the play's parodic thrust. This is a mystery in quotation marks, and director Simon Levy revels in its excesses with almost cartoonish glee.
"Now that's how all those plays begin," is the play's curious first line, uttered ironically by a three-piece-suited businessman (J. Paul Boehmer) as he enters and pours himself a stiff drink. His wife, Janet (Lisa Pelikan), absurdly overdressed in an off-the-shoulder evening gown and oven mitts to make dinner, lives up to her side of the caricature, offering bon mots and lolling about sexily, to her strait-laced hubby's studious inattention.
This, it turns out, is an elaborately winking rehearsal for the murder of Janet's actual husband, Derek (Larry Cedar), who helpfully conforms to type in a subsequent scene of marital misdirection that is "Accomplice's" rapid-fire high point. The beanpole Cedar, who looks rather like Pete Townshend's scrawnier kid brother, and the comically insistent Pelikan -- aptly named here, as she scoops up swaths of scenery in her finely set mouth -- effortlessly usher this mounting exchange into farcical territory.
From this rich, satisfying blend of comedy and suspense, the play curls into an inward spiral of self-reference that's altogether too knowing for its own good. To say more would ruin the twists; but twists or not, nothing in the second half of "Accomplice" is as funny or as engaging as its first-act climax.
The primary culprit in this buzz-kill is Holmes, a relentless wit who can't leave well enough alone. Every joke must have a fillip, a double take, a rimshot. Levy's direction is no great help; the archly starchy tone of the first act gives way to a broadly conspiratorial swagger, as if we've been let in on the plot of the century. It's a good scam, but not that good, really.
As the play's leading plotter, Pelikan seems slightly miscast. A stunning, petite redhead, in her mutating role she's meant to be nutty, then imperious; she conveys instead a fetching flightiness, then a mildly disagreeable hauteur. In short, she's too likable a creature for a play that ought to have a more jagged, unpredictable rhythm. We can't imagine her inflicting much more harm than a dirty look. Indeed, her best moment is one of queenly delicacy, as she takes her sweet time getting into position for a scene while her fellow actors dutifully wait.
Boehmer is fulsomely suave and handsome, more or less in the right proportion for his role as a youngish rotter. And Samantha Raddock, though directed to supply her airhead ingenue with a bit too much air, scores her laughs with infectious gusto.
It is the pliable Cedar, though, who comes off best. He's the only performer here who both fully embodies the well-trod gamesmanship of the British thriller and subtly sends it up. He manages to twit the twit without giving the game away.
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for other shows.
Ends: March 13
Price: $26 to $36
Contact: (818) 558-7000
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes