John Bishop's The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a moderately entertaining murder-mystery farce that enjoyed a moderate success on Broadway several decades ago and is currently enjoying a moderately successful revival by the estimable Gallery Players.
Bishop's script, long on obligatory exposition in the first act, fast and furiously ridiculous in the second, has some very funny situations, some very funny characters, and some very funny lines. It also has a very unnerving sense of déjà vu, referencing as it does nearly every mystery/comedy in the genre, particularly those mid-'70s all-star films such as Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective, and as a mystery it is about as puzzling as an episode of Murder, She Wrote.
Bruce Merrill's production was sluggish in the very long first act, quickly paced in the second, but ultimately defeated by the flat performances of some of the key players (most surprisingly from Christi Kelsey, who was so sharp last year in Gallery's Noises Off), and a drawing room setting (complete with doors to slam and several revolving and sliding bookcases that revealed the requisite hidden passages) that, while gorgeous to behold, was so vast that the required split-second timing was impossibly compromised by the length of time it took just to cross the stage. (Set design: Derek Haas and James A. Sturtevant.)
Only three members of the cast injected any real life into the proceedings: Mary Coburn, an expert comedienne with impeccable timing played an alcoholic lyricist with hilarious physicality; Margaret Catov gave the obligatory wealthy hostess a delightfully dizzy practicality that grew more sharply funny as the evening wore on; and Joseph Smith, as Coburn's outrageous songwriting partner, whipping out quips with the speed and panache of a Chelsea Noel Coward. These three performers were a joy to watch whenever they were on stage, for they not only invested their roles with a gloriously daffy energy, they also created a whole inner life for their characters that was unfortunately lacking in the performances of the other ensemble members.
Staci Shember McLaughlin's costumes were rich with period detail and color, and Thom Weaver's lighting bathed the aforementioned set with an alternately cold and warm glow, depending on the needs of the scene at hand. Most effective was Alf Bishai's wonderfully spidery original score, which was spooky, jaunty, and funny all at once.
Despite the sluggish pace and uneven acting, Gallery's production of The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 was an enjoyably pleasant diversion. Even at half steam, this company consistently produces at a level that other companies can only aspire to. And that says a lot in the increasingly competitive world of Off-Off Broadway.
(Also featuring Jarret Berenstein, Yasmine Falk, Susan Faye Groberg, David Keller, Brad A. Makarowski, Owiso Odera.)
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita