Murder at the Howard Johnsonís by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. Directed by Michael Marotta.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Matthew Daly, Jessica Lynn Johnson, Joseph Dal Porto; photo provided
"A personal realization course"
In May, 1979, when Ron Clark and Sam Bobrickís third comedy for Broadway closed, after four performances, it broke their previous record run by a total of three showings. Their first show - "Norman, Is That You?," after an eleven performance marathon made it to the movies, but their careers as playwrights didnít seem to be faring all that well. "Murder at the Howard Johnsonís" did find a rather healthy, long-lasting life as dinner-theater fare for many years, however, and now it can be seen at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York through September 28. When it closes here it will have succeeded its original run by two performances.
It is a comedy. It is a confusion of comedies, actually. Scene One: Arlene and Mitchell are having an extramarital affair and they have decided to kill Arleneís husband, Paul. They attempt it in a rented room in a Howard Johnsonís Motor Inn, just a week before Christmas and they seem to be doing it right. Exit the lovers. Re-enter the husband. Scene Two: On the fourth of July Paul and Arlene, reunited, decide to do away with her lover Mitchell who has been unfaithful to her. They screw it up. Scene Three: Bored with Arlene, angry with her for her double infidelities, Paul and Mitchell decide to do away with her in another room at the same motor inn. The End.
While there are some very funny lines in this play, and some delightful situations, the comedy never quite overcomes the darker edge of this state of things. Mitchell is a dentist which is, in itself, a comic ploy that should bear more giggle-fruit than it does. Paul is a whiner and Arlene is a vamp without oomph. In the original cast the threesome were portrayed by Tony Roberts, Bob Dishy and Joyce Van Patten, three accomplished comedy actors. I saw it; they couldnít make it work. Something with this sort of cleverness deserves a second look and thatís the opportunity at hand.
Director Michael Marotta knows how to milk laughs. He knows how to take the physical comedy and the verbal wit and blend them into a seamless container. When he has talented actors to work with he can turn a sowís ear into a silk purse. In this play he has the actors, but the sowís ear wasnít readily available so he has tried to work with its teat, a dry udder, sadly and the silk purse is only really glimpsed from afar.
Jessica Lynn Johnson is a spry, agile young woman who can move like a nymph in heat and delivers comic lines with snap and security. She connects with Arlene brilliantly, but Arlene is a character who becomes harder to like and empathize with as the play progresses. Try as she does, the lady cannot be the heroine of her own story and so we lose our interest in her. Johnson does what she can to change all that, but not even talent wins in this instance. Her comic timing should make her an asset to any production and, even here, she is worth watching. Itís just that Arlene isnít a winner.
Joseph Dal Porto, so much fun last year in "Almost, Maine," is not quite the ladies man his character claims to be. He doesnít have that gritty masculinity that separates him from his counterpart in the play. With Tony Roberts playing opposite Bob Dishy there were true opposites on stage but Dal Porto and his rival, Matthew Daly, often seemed to be too much the same man, physically, to provide that needed contrast for Arlene to vacillate. Dal Porto does everything he can to be the seducer in this triangle, but he just doesnít make it real enough to work.
Daly, on the other hand, subdues his usual masculine charms to become the whiny, obnoxious "schlub" that is Paul. This is a fine actor at work and he keeps his character vaguely sympathetic throughout, even in the final murder attempt in which he is clearly the active agent. Daly never loses the vocal peculiarities that mark his character. He never looks good in his costumes. He never loses our sympathy, but sadly our sympathy is wasted on a character who has so very little character.
The trio of actors and their well-schooled director do what they can with this material. As noted, there are some very funny lines and some clearly funny situations. You cannot help but laugh at the fight on the window ledge, for example. But even so, the show ran four performances on Broadway with superb stars who can make the Manhattan phone book sound funny, so what chance is there for something more here.
The wonderful set was designed by Abe Phelps and the delectable period costumes were designed by Elyse & Leah Miller. Lighting by Jon Earle looked good. If the play had matched the talents of the company this would have been a wonderful entertainment, but the play isnít a match for the talent interpreting it...and that includes the hysterically funny "maid" who changes the room between murders.
Murder at the Howard Johnsonís plays weekends only through September 28 at the Theater Barn, located at 654 Route 20 in New Lebanon, New York. For information and tickets call 518-794-8989.