Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Attempted Murder As A TV Sitcom--Onstage

The pleasant disorientation of In Tandem's MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON'S

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick’'s stage comedy Murder at the Howard Johnson'’s is kind of a weird late-1970'’s anomaly. Written by a pair of writers who started-out in television, the script has the feel of a late ‘'70’s-style sitcom. It's about three people who take turns plotting to kill each other and/or commit suicide over the course of a series of rendezvous at a Howard Johnson'’s. (Not exactly late '70's TV fare.) The comedy takes the stage of the Tenth Street Theatre for the next couple of weeks in an In Tandem Theatre production directed by In Tandem co-founder Jane Flieller.

Out of context, the production feels like really good actors thrown at a reasonably lame staged version of an old TV sitcom. The production does an exceedingly good job of planting the comedy firmly in the context of the late 1970’s and bringing it close enough to the audience to feel like a richly-rendered late ‘70’s TV sitcom. Chris Flieller’'s set is a pretty meticulous re-creation of a chain hotel room of the era. Okay, so maybe the telephone in the hotel room would’ve been a rotary dial back then and the artwork and one of the chairs feels a bit more early-to-mid ‘80’s, but everything else, including hairstyles, facial hair and Kathleen Smith costuming feels very distinct. Throughout the production, one can feel a real nostalgia for that hazy period between the ‘'70’'s and '‘80’'s as seen through the low-def image of old network TV-style comedy.

Pleasantly Disorientating

With a production design firmly planted in the era it came out of, it becomes startlingly clear just how out of place Murder At The Howard Johnson'’s was. When the play debuted in 1979, sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Taxi were highly acclaimed. The slightly annoying antics of hack prank comic Andy Kaufman were considered edgy. 1979 was nearly three decades before a show like Dexter would be appear on premium cable. A traditional major network-style late ‘'70'’s sitcom about a group of people trying to kill each other feels pleasantly disorientating. It feels like someone decided to mix Three's Company with Dexter--—then put it on stage in an intimate studio theatre production with some really talented actors. In context, In Tandem’'s production of Murder At The Howard Johnson’'s is really, really hip retro-comedy that would be staggeringly popular amongst young hipsters who will probably never see it. (The young hipster demographic is one that is notoriously difficult to market to.)

The fact that playwrights Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick started out in TV is really interesting. TV in the early part of their careers was a lot more conservative than it is now. Their first theatre project together was Norman, Is That You?-- a comedy about Jewish parents trying to come to terms with their son's homosexuality. It debuted on Broadway— in 1970. Given the opportunity to work outside the conservative concerns of network TV producers, they ended-up doing something way ahead of its time. Norman, Is That You? closed after roughly a dozen performances. The writing team continued to work on decidedly non-mainstream pop stuff for the stage, though . . . and the weird pseudo-edginess of Murder At The Howard Johnson’s recalls something I'’d read about TV writing by author Rob Long.

 

The Mickey Mouse Issue 

In his book Conversations With My Agent, Long makes reference to “the Mickey Mouse Issue.” Mickey Mouse is not funny. He'’s a sane hero lost in a world beyond his control. The lame attempts at humor come from his interacting with and overcoming external adversity. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, IS funny. He'’s crazy. He’'s got a carrot fixation. He cross-dresses and kisses his enemies. He'’s chaotic. TV producers have traditionally been under the impression that their audiences don'’t want to see funny sitcoms. They think people watch sitcoms to hang out with characters they can relate to--—nice, safe, relatable characters who aren't the least bit offensive. TV producers want to populate a show with a large cast of Mickey Mouses with perhaps a wacky next-door neighbor Bugs Bunny character. The problem is that Mickey Mouse characters are terminally boring for TV writers to work with. They'’d much rather have a full cast of chaotic Bugs Bunny-like characters with perhaps a Mickey Mouse character in the center of it all looking on in horror.

Murder At The Howard Johnson'’s was Clark and Bobrick’s opportunity to focus a three-act plot around three different Bugs Bunny-type characters. All of them are totally crazy in different ways and all of them speak in set-ups and punch lines that echo the distinct cadence and rhythm of a late ‘70’s sitcom. It's a very, very weird stylistic mix. 

Yates, Bolin and Cherney

Cat Yates plays Arlene, the central lunatic—--the woman the two men in the cast seem to orbit around. Yates carefully calibrates a performance here. We have to see enough emotion in her to make her seem at least vaguely sympathetic, but crazy enough to be planning the murder of her husband with the dentist she'’s taken as a lover. She’'s impetuous, crazy and remarkably resilient, even as she contemplates suicide in Act Two.

Darrel Cherney plays the dentist--—a man named Mitchell. Something of a flashy slave to fashion, he'’s kind of a central focal point for the style and mood of the 1970'’s. Cherney has grown sideburns and a blonde moustache. He has wide lapels and brightly-colored shirts. His ‘'70’’'s tuxedo in Act 3 is a visual gag in and of itself. Cherney is called upon here to play a ridiculously hopeless romantic. He'’s a man with blind allegiance to romantic chivalry who would also think nothing of shooting a guy full of novacaine and letting him drown in a hotel shower. Cherney renders the comic contrast pretty vividly in a performance that cleverly mimics actors found on network soundstages of the era.

Dylan Bolin plays Arlene'’s husband Paul. He'’s the unscrupulous stereotype of a wealthy used car salesman. He loves his wife in a way that is almost deliberately undemonstrative emotionally. Bolin hits all the right lines with comic precision. As twisted as the guy ends up coming across at times, he’s the most conservative of the three characters, so he’s almost a straight man to the other two. Bolin seems to have an innate understanding of exactly how far to push the character’s craziness without compromising his conservative nature.

The Proximity Thing

With general admission seating, audience members can choose how close they want to sit to the action. A more traditional theatre experience can be had further back in the theatre. Even the furthest  seats are close enough to get the overall surrealism of seeing a warped ‘'70’'s  sitcom executed live. The closest seats (—the seats on the side) offer the adventurous an opportunity to get really close to the action. Sit in the far corner and your feet are resting on the same carpet that the actors tread. It’s like resting your feet beyond the glowing mosaic of an old standard-definition Cathode Ray TV some thirty years ago.

In Tandem Theatre’s production of Murder at the Howard Johnson’'s runs through March 13th at the 10th Street Theatre. For reservations, call 414-271-1371.

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