Comedy is no mystery for sunset's hilarious spoof

Lawyer Roger Masters (Glenn Villa), Hannibal Hix (Hal Erickson), Ernestine Wintergreen (Diane Kallas) and Sally VanViller (Megan Tappan) gather at an old isolated mansion in a scene from Sunset Playhouse's "Any Number Can Die."

Lawyer Roger Masters (Glenn Villa), Hannibal Hix (Hal Erickson), Ernestine Wintergreen (Diane Kallas) and Sally VanViller (Megan Tappan) gather at an old isolated mansion in a scene from Sunset Playhouse's "Any Number Can Die."

 

By MARILYN JOZWIK      

Published June 4, 2018                                                                 


Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” – earlier called “Ten Little Indians” -- is a classic murder mystery that has delighted theater audiences for years.

Sunset Playhouse’s “Any Number Can Die” takes that basic story as well as similar plays in the genre and gives it a good, old-fashioned spoofing.  The show was written by Fred Carmichael.

What’s so wonderful about this show is that it keeps much of a Christie-like mystery intact while creating all sorts of opportunities for humor, which this fine cast, under the direction of Carol Dolphin, carries out so well.

Everything about this play delightfully screams Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”  It takes place in an old, spooky mansion on a secluded South Carolina island (accessible only by boat, of course) in the 1920s, during Prohibition and the flapper era.  Gathered are 10 people, several of whom turn out to be someone else (Duh!). The occasion is the midnight reading of a wealthy man’s will – one of those gathered is expecting to win the jackpot! And is it a calm, quiet evening? Of course not! In true murder-mystery fashion it’s a dark and stormy night.

Matthew Carr's handsome set is a fine backdrop for Sunset Playhouse's "Any Number Can Die." Pictured, from left, are James Boylan as Carter Forstman, Glenn Villa as Roger Masters, Megan Tappan as Sally Van Viller, Antoinette Stikl as Zenia, Scott Korman as Edgars, Diane Kallas as Ernestine Wintergreen, Maureen Chobanoff as Celia Lathrop, Kurt Magoon as T.J. Lathrop and Michael Elftman as Jack Regent.

Matthew Carr's handsome set is a fine backdrop for Sunset Playhouse's "Any Number Can Die." Pictured, from left, are James Boylan as Carter Forstman, Glenn Villa as Roger Masters, Megan Tappan as Sally Van Viller, Antoinette Stikl as Zenia, Scott Korman as Edgars, Diane Kallas as Ernestine Wintergreen, Maureen Chobanoff as Celia Lathrop, Kurt Magoon as T.J. Lathrop and Michael Elftman as Jack Regent.

Cliches covered

Every murder-mystery device in the book has been hilariously covered here, and this cast has the acting chops to pull it all off. You can almost bring a list and check off each device, like playing auto bingo. Hunched, hooded, black-clad figure? Check. Secret doors and passageways? Check. A cryptic poem? Check. Lights that go off in a storm? Check. A statue that opens a secret passageway? Check. The list goes on until…well, until virtually every murder-mystery cliché has been comically covered.

In this show, the drama is set early as a lawyer (Glenn Villa) gets ready to read the will of the wealthy deceased, but the lights go out before he’s finished. And the first of four murders takes place in the dark. There appears to be a motive for murder by one of the wealthy man’s relatives.

 Much of the faux tension comes from the servant couple Zenia (Antoinette Stikl) and Edgars (Scott Korman). Zenia points out harbingers of disaster, such as the hooting owl, while Edgars shuffles about, hunched over, looking like a cross between Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” and Grandpa on “The Munsters.”

Comic performance

Besides the lawyer and servant couple, the mansion’s weekend inhabitants include several possible inheritors: flashy flapper Celia (Maureen Chobanoff), childlike niece Sally (Megan Tappan) and haughty Ernestine (Diane Kallas). Celia’s browbeaten husband T.J. (Kurt Magoon) and Sally’s wannabe boyfriend Carter (James Boylan) are also guests for the weekend. Joining the group is reporter Jack (Michael Elftman) and a detective – arriving before a crime has been committed! – named Hannibal Hix (Hal Erickson). But it doesn’t take long to find out that some characters are not who they purport to be. Why, even Agatha shows up among the 10!

It’s Erickson’s comic performance that sets the tone for the whole show. His detective character touts years of working with criminal investigators on his resume, but admits he was just a file clerk. Erickson hilariously bumbles through the clues like a klutzy Sherlock Holmes, for instance examining an obviously cut phone line with his ever-present magnifying glass before determining its condition.

With his clear, booming, well-modulated voice and commanding stage presence, Erickson is an absolute delight. He jockeys between “aha moments” and self-doubt with good-natured and self-deprecating humor. As his eventual sidekick, Kallas is a great match, the two presenting a fun comic team that finds themselves hiding behind walls and curtains, snooping about with lit candles and popping out at the most unexpected moments.

 

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Brooding set

The ensemble cast is first rate, but I especially enjoyed Tappan’s sprightly and slightly ditzy Sally and Stikl’s unsmiling Zenia, who segues from doom and gloom to nonchalant in an instant.

There is lots of great schtick here, but perhaps the funniest is when a character is about to provide a name to Hix that could solve the murder, but precedes the telling with mounds of extraneous information. Hix is beside himself as he breaks the fourth wall, telling the audience how characters always go on and on and then are killed before they spill the beans. One of many funny bits.

Mention has to be given to Matthew Carr, scenic designer, for creating a marvelous playground for the show, a heavy, brooding set of mostly deep rose walls and furnishings, not to mention hidden apertures on the walls, French doors opening to a patio, and a fireplace Santa Claus could fit in.

Lighting designer Marty Wallner also had his hands full in devising the looks for scenes that include flickering chandeliers, plus blackouts with enough lighting to see figures. Effective lighting is critical to building suspense and keeping the mystery – and comedy – from taking a break.

If you go

Who: Sunset Playhouse

What: “Any Number Can Die”

When: Through June 17

Where: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove

Info/Tickets: 262-782-4430; www.sunsetplayhouse.com