In this play, Cook takes on the Agatha Christie style country house murder. “Houndstooth Manor” has seen better days, and is serving as a guest house. “Lady Fenster” (Mary Beth Topf) shares the house with her sister, Miss Mary (who is never seen), four servants, and long-time tenant Major Armbrewster (Cory Klein). New guests include a nervous teacher suffering from post-traumatic stress, a American couple who are not what they seem, and Lady Fenster’s nephew, Bobby (Scott Fudali), who’s already got one murder charge hanging over his head. This doesn’t stop the neighbor and local femme fatale, Katie Balfour (Lillian E. Wells) from setting her cap for him. When Miss Mary is found dead, the doctor (Bill Kaiser) and Inspector Milo (Rick Loos) are added to the mix. Oh, yes, and there may or may not be the ghost of “Sir Jeffrey,” the ancestor, who, in a nod to “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” broke his neck on the Moor while fleeing from creditors.
The servants have important roles in the play. Epsworth, the acerbic butler, has quite a good role. The night we saw it, director Michael Jablonski had to substitute on short notice, but did very well even acting with a script in his hand. He made all his blocking and delivered his lines with excellent timing and expression. Kerry J. Moriarty was good as Madge, the long-suffering and plain-speaking maid, Paul Sullivan as MacDonald, the gardener who gets dragged into the investigation, and Donna McMaster as the cook had a very nice grief-stricken lament on the death of “Miss Mary,” which ends abruptly when she realizes that she may be a suspect in the murder by poison.
There were nice comic turns by Michelle Miller as “Matilda Trent”, the traumatized teacher who turns out to be a fair hand with a fencing foil, and Mr. Klein as the boring blowhard Armbrewster, who is a classic “Colonel Blimp” character.
All the actors did fine jobs. Comic timing and delivery were dead on, and characterization quite good, although, as many of the characters have something to hide, it may be hard to tell what is an intentional lapse and what not.
The Players production staff put up a nice looking set, and costumes were quite good. Lighting cues were right on, and there was a very good sound design for effects.
My quibble with the production is the play itself. Although it is funny, and the convoluted plot mostly tight, a lot of the humor is cheap and facile. Author of (according to his web site) 144 plays including one-acts, “mellerdramas,” and “Whodunnit Murder Mysteries,” the writing is sometimes sloppy to the point of being confusing. A case in point is names and forms of address (on which I admit I may be somewhat of a crank--). The mistress of the house is “Lady Fenster,” which would imply that she’s either heir to a title in her own right, or the widow of the lord of the manor, no husband being in sight. Her younger sister is usually referred to as “Miss Mary,” whose last name, given in one of the cheap joke lines, we learn is Tyler, which would reinforce “Fenster” being a title, and the family name being Tyler. (Just as, in “Downton Abbey,” the Earldom is “Grantham,” but the family name is “Crawley”.) However, when her murder is discovered, Epsworth, delivering the title line, refers to Miss Mary as “Madam”—something a proper butler would never do.
THEN, we learn that Lady Fenster isn’t the eldest child. Her older brother, who owns the estate, is away in America. He’s never referred to by any title, although by rights he would be “Lord Fenster,” or “Sir Whateverhisnameis” if the title’s a baronetcy. Adding to the confusion, nephew Bobby, who is the son of the absent brother and heir apparent, has the last name “Totter.”
I know, most of this goes right over the audience’s head, but what irritates me is that it could all be fixed with a few edits. If the title is a baronetcy, then the absent brother is “Sir X Totter,” “Lady Fenster” becomes “Miss Totter,” and “Miss Mary” remains Miss Mary. If the brother’s actually a baron, earl, or marquis, then he’s “Lord Fenster,” and the sisters have the courtesy titles of “Lady X,” and “Lady Mary”. The Totter/Tyler dichotomy is fixed by throwing out the “Mary Tyler Moor” joke, as one less groaner wouldn’t have been missed.
Quibbles aside, it was a fun evening, and it’s good to go out and root for the “home team.”
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