Cider Mill actors strong, but opening show is weak

Reviewed by George Basler

Alan Ayckbourn is a busy guy. In his career, the British playwright has produced a remarkable 76 plays. Although it can’t be proven, some have called him the most produced English playwright in history, other than William Shakespeare.

One hopes, then, that It Could Be Any One Of Us, is one of his lesser efforts.

To be blunt, the comedy/drama, which  is opening the Cider Mill Playhouse’s season, is the type of play audience members will forget before they’re out of the parking lot. As a mystery, it’s not all that mysterious. As a comedy, it’s not all that funny. As a thriller, it’s about as nerve-racking as a bowl of oatmeal.

One thing that made the Cider Mill production tolerable is the skill of the performers as they tried to breath life into the limp and lightweight piece. The set by Craig Saeger wonderfully catches the feel of a slightly dilapidated Tudor mansion where the action takes place. The acting by the six-member cast is first rate, and director Michael Muldoon, who also plays one of the characters, keeps the action moving fluidly.

One artistic decision was to have the actors play their roles with English accents. The move could have been a disaster if done poorly. But, on opening  night, all held their accent perfectly, as least to my ear.

It Could Be Any One Of Us is intended as a tip of the hat and affectionate parody of thrillers replete with larger-than-life characters, preposterous plotting and a “dark and stormy night” atmosphere.

The action takes place in the drawing room of a mock Tudor mansion inhabited by an eccentric family with artistic pretensions, but no talent. The atmosphere is venomous because the characters loath each other. Especially hated is the older brother, Mortimer Chalke, a failed composer, who inherited the home from their mother and runs it like a petty tyrant. Angered over artistic slights, Mortimer threatens to leave the house to a near stranger, a former piano pupil. When the former pupil visits for the weekend, all the characters have opportunity and motive for a little lethal mischief.

The play has all the required cliches — banging doors, strange noises, flickering lights and a corpse. But thrills are practically non-existent. The murder takes place in an almost off-hand way. No brilliant detective is on one to solve the case. There isn’t any real villain.

All this makes for a pretty slack and tepid evening.

In an interview, Ayckbourn has said he was working to create a play in the tradition of “dark house” thrillers that he loves, such as Bob Hope’s old movie, The Cat and the Canary. Take my word for it: Bob Hope is a lot funnier.

One thing that especially annoyed me was a gimmick built into the play. According to what I read before the performance, the killer is randomly decided by a card game in Act 1, scene 1. Each of three characters could be the killer, and the murderer can change each night with slight variations in scenes at different points in the play. But the audience is never let in on the gimmick. The only way for someone to know about the three endings is to come back for two other performances, something I would emphatically not recommend.

So, other than making the playwright and actors feel clever, what’s the point of the gimmick?

At some points in the play, Ayckbourn touches on the deep-seated neuroses of the characters — a teenage daughter who eats to excess to cover a severe lack of self esteem, a younger brother (a failed artist) who carriers a pathetic obsession for the visiting former pupil. Ayckbourn never really develops these storylines, however. In the context of something this lightweight, however, it’s probably unfair to have this expectation.

All this being said, I have to credit the cast with a game effort. All play their parts well. I especially liked Glenn Singer, who brought a bit of pathos to the role of the younger brother. And Ted Nappi as the despicable older brother, Mortimer, was delightfully over the top. He was a hoot. And he had the best maniacal laugh I’ve heard in awhile.

If you go: It Could Be Any One Of Us will be performed at 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 7 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Tickets are $28 Fridays, $29 Saturdays, $26 at other times ($10 Sundays for ages 18 and younger when accompanied by an adult; $25 Thursdays and Sundays for students and those 65 and older).

Tickets are available by calling the box office at 748-7363 from noon-5:30 p.m. weekdays and until curtain time on performance days. You also can buy online at www.cidermillplayhouse.org.

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