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Accomplice — Isis Productions at Walnut 5

Accomplice -- interiorNothing can quite be taken at face value in “Accomplice,” Rupert Holmes’s 1990 comedy thriller Isis Productions is playing at the Walnut 5. You can believe what you see, but what you see may be a ruse. One of Holmes’s gambits is to use a play within a play to make you wonder what is actual and what is being acted.

In both the “real” and dramatized plots, would-be murderers and their accomplices trade places with such regularity you can’t tell who is in league with whom, even when the characters are kissing each other. Four characters suddenly turn to eight when you realize each actor in Neill Hartley’s cast for Isis has a dual role. Even before the show starts, a clue is planted to mislead you.

With all of these twists and changes, “Accomplice” depends on surprise, the audience being like Judi Dench’s Philomena and not seeing a plot manipulation coming. Confusion is another objective. Keeping track of who is allied with whom, and in what relationship, becomes a kind of indoor sport. Partners change with reckless abandon, and one moment’s protagonist in the next moment’s villain or victim.

The intention is to provide fun, with the audience constantly thinking they have solved “Accomplice’s” mystery and always being thwarted in their detective work by a some revelation or unexpected reverse in plan. We see poisons and other items that can effectively do someone in, but they are usually red herrings while actual crime is achieved more deviously and less predictably. If any crime is committed at all. That’s “Accomplice’s game, to keep you guessing if any character is truly destined to die at another’s hand.

Holmes has plotted with care, but he left out one crucial element, a motive for the ultimate murder, the one we’re supposed to believe is, at last, actually perpetrated. We follow several paths that are supposed to lead to death and convince us a homicide has been successful, and each time Holmes and the Isis cast involves us enough in the fatal plan to make us interested in its outcome. Then comes the murder that is alleged to matter, and we take no interest because the reason for killing remains amorphous. It involves revenge for something that happened years before, and no one ties the doomed character to the situation in any concrete or particularly damning way that would make you believe justice is being enacted or compel you to want to see it carried out. The play loses all credibility and substance. It’s a game for game’s sake and not good enough a game to warrant your time. You half want the crime to be committed and to work so you can go home and forget all the goose chases, false starts, and false endings you’ve endured as “Accomplice” wends via a convoluted route to its unsatisfying conclusion.

The Isis production seems like two distinct plays, the first taking place in the drawing room of a secluded English country home that is 20 miles from its nearest neighbor and equally distant from a hospital, the second taking place on the same furniture but in a different context altogether. The change, when realized, makes you laugh at yourself, especially since Holmes has one of his characters talk about how the audience is spending intermission discussing what happens next. Holmes’s theatrical jokes works. But only to the point of stunning you with altered circumstances. As the second act unfolds, you miss the tighter structure, the more traditional plotting and characterization, and relatively breezier repartee of the first.

The second act never grabs you. Your interest and care about any of the characters wanes more and more at the scenes plod on. The core of the play didn’t shift. It died. The business that kept you going, in spite of bits that didn’t always add up, in Act One is gone and replaced by drearier characters who seem to argue over trivia and seem willing to kill over something Holmes does not make clear. Or Hartley and Isis did not make clear. The point is a semblance of substance has been reduced to drivel that not only seems pointless but is unentertaining.

Holmes didn’t run out of steam after Act One. His intention was to interrupt what he started and what the audience expected to continue in kind, to ply his joke. The problem is the gimmick backfires for several reasons. One is the premise used to transform one set of four characters into a different set of four. One of the original characters is upset at something she, as an actress, will have to do in a play. In 1990, her issue may have seemed plausible or worth fighting over. In 2014, her argument seems ludicrous. Interest in “Accomplice” is lost there and then, and nothing the Isis cast does ever renews it.

The play becomes trite. Its plot development seems forced and you can see the mechanics of Holmes’s writing, always a fatal happenstance in regard to audience enjoyment or attention. “Accomplice” is no longer fun and, we, the people watching it, are no longer content to go along with Holmes’s circumlocutions. The meal we’re being served is not enough to fill our appetite for mystery and orchestrated mayhem.

Thus “Accomplice” fizzles. The first set of characters, and their situation, were much more engaging and made us much more willing to suspend disbelief to see them go about their universally nefarious business. We knew the first mystery was labored and depended more on shtick than suspense, but we were willing to go along with it because it was mildly diverting and featured some amusing acting from Mark Knight who played a man who was both above being tricked by the obvious and somewhat indifferent about the result if he was. Even though the result would be his death.

We knew Holmes was spoofing the neat drawing room mysteries of Agatha Christie and others among his betters, but we didn’t care because Knight and his castmates, Renee Richman-Weisband and Rob Hargraves, were making “Accomplice” into an amiable lark that whiled away an hour in a congenial way. Enough was going on to divert, and Hartley’s cast seemed to be in spoof mode, playing sincerely but with a wink in their eye and a touch of parody in their reactions to some stock elements of theatrical mysteries.

I particularly liked Knight’s weary businessman, retiring to his country estate for a weekend and unwilling to be bothered by his wife’s chatter and clumsy attempts to kill him. Clumsy, not because they weren’t clever, but because Knight’s Derek seems to intuit everything his wife has rigged to cause his death and refuse or avoid them.

The first act, in addition to maintaining the air of a thriller, has some good badinage between Richman-Weisband and both Hargraves and Knight in turn. It also packed two last-minute shockers that did get the blood stirring and made you think Holmes at last means murderous business.

The Isis cast played that first act in a standard way, as wealthy British folks, off on a weekend holiday to their country digs after a grueling week in London’s hectic financial sector. They entertained and had fun acting out Holmes’s many tricks.

The second act falls apart. It seems as though neither Hartley nor any member of his can establish a rhythm that makes the plots or pairings worthwhile to watch. Everything among the characters seems vague and petty. The hint of a relationship that is supposed to mirror the surprise ending of Act One, seems unreal. It doesn’t jolt or move “Accomplice” forward. It plays like one more red herring from a jar the audience wanted to see be put back in the refrigerator.

With so much seeming implausible, even more being uninteresting, and the denouement being disappointing in having no solid motive, “Accomplice” crumbles. Holmes has undermined his actors, and the actors have undermined us by not having figured out an engaging way to play the second act, e.g. making one character attractive or persuasive enough to make us root for the murder, to make accomplices of a sort in that we are willing to cheer on a killer and watch dispassionately as another character forfeits his or her life.

In both sections of “Accomplice,” Mark Knight is the most convincing of the players. He has a witty hauteur and oblivious ease in the first half and a sense of irony and purpose in the second.

Renee Richman-Weisband is your familiar sophisticated, duplicitous wife of a well-to-do man who is bored with him and wants to trade him in for another paramour. She seems to be more a cog in the works than an integral character in the second act.

Rob Hargraves makes the most of his two parts, registering strongly in the second act, where he has some interesting business but making his impression in the first act as a mover and shaker in what seems at the time to be Holmes’s main focus.

Kirsten Quinn barely has anything to do in Act One. She takes on some strength as she shed her wig and accent in later scenes.

“Accomplice” runs through Sunday, March 30 at the Walnut 5 on the fifth floor of the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by going online to http://www.isisproductions.com or http://www.isisticketleap.com.

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