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A Murder Has Been Arranged — Hedgerow Theatre

7455976_origMystery needs mood. It requires suspense. Most of all, it needs an audience to care about whether a perpetrator is foiled or not.

“A Murder Has Been Arranged” is a specialty piece because Emlyn Williams’s script makes it abundantly clear who committed murder, how he did it, and why he did it. Nothing is left to figure out or solve. A blatant crime is committed before your eyes, and you wonder where Williams has to go from there.

Two places, both of which involve the location in which the killing occurred.

We see who murders whom, and Williams’s characters, none of whom is a detective, surmise the culprit. The trick is how to wring a confession and bring the scoundrel to justice. So one direction is to trap the murderer into admitting the foul deed in a way that makes the case defense-proof.

The other direction is a journey into the supernatural. Williams didn’t fashion a mystery as much as he wrote a ghost story. The man killed is an avid occultist whose particular study is a murder that took place on a theater stage 95 years before the action in “A Murder Has Been Arranged” begins. According to a book this focal character, Sir Charles Jasper, wrote on the subject, the ghost of a young woman haunts the theater where the murder happened. She appeared on stage the night the murder took place, and she is predicted to appear again if another killing occurs. To give his ghost angle more texture, Williams also says the ghost will be struck dumb by the violence and horror of the deaths but recover her voice in time to point to the person who committed the crime.

To keep matters immediate, Williams instructs companies doing his play to insert the name of their theater in places where the venue is mentioned. That means the businesslike secretary to Sir Charles answers the telephone, “Hedgerow Theatre” and all action supposedly takes place on the Hedgerow stage. Sir Charles has rented the theater because it is the home of the ghost he has researched so thoroughly. He is about to inherit £2 million ($120 million in current American currency) and intends to celebrate with friends, stage center, at 11 p.m., the exact time his legacy from an uncle becomes rightfully his (because it is the exact time on the exact day he was born).

Williams has not provided a director with a lot of fodder to create intrigue. Too much is said and shown straightforwardly for that. He has supplied ample ingredients for tension, for squabbles, for uncanny alliances, for mysticism, for confusion, and for comedy. Several people around Sir Charles have as much a stake in seeing him dead as alive. For some, a murder after 11 p.m. would garner them the grand inheritance. For one, the person named as the heir if Charles doesn’t live until 11, the motive is more than apparent. Williams’s title suggests Sir Charles may want to be murdered to prove his theory about the ghost.

Williams includes a little suspense by making it known no one has seen this alternative beneficiary in several years. There is one accusation posited that one of the people among those at the theater with Sir Charles is the default heir, but that is quickly dispelled when the actual bounder, Maurice Mullins, introduces himself upon arriving unexpectedly for Sir Charles’s party.

Suspense derives from when and how Mullins might strike, assuming he has homicidal plans at all. He claims to have come to add his congratulations and best returns of the day to his fortunate distant relative. Drawing room-style repartee and discussion of the ghost fill most of the first act. That, and introducing the various characters and exposing their attitudes towards each other and towards Sir Charles.

With all at her disposal to build on, Hedgerow director Sarah J, Gafgen makes little of Williams’s material. From the beginning lines, when Sir Charles’s secretary calls for the cook catering the on-stage party, everything plays flatly. Even the better performances cannot lift Hedgerow’s “A Murder Has Been Arranged” out of the doldrums. Gafgen has established no mood or pace in which tension could grow and flourish. Her staging is matter-of-fact. It makes the elements of Williams’s script too plain and renders them unexciting. Nothing causes a chill, and little makes you care more than mildly about any of the characters. Even the ghost story, which is critical to the second act, is staged too literally to have an effect. You can see what Williams did with his story and glean how to tell it better on stage, but Gafgen does not uphold the Hedgerow’s well-earned reputation for staging mysteries, and “A Murder Has Been Arranged” never gathers steam, frightens, or causes concern or delight. The dramatic portions of the play are so unformed and so expediently done, you are left wondering what attracted Hedgerow to Williams’s piece and why Gafgen couldn’t make more of it.

One thing that could have changed matters from the start was for the Hedgerow to ignore Williams’s direction to use the name of actual theater where “Arranged” is played in the text. The diction Williams uses is clearly British. You hear that particularly in the role of the cook whose lines make you think of a dotty young Angela Lansbury. By setting “A Murder Has Been Arranged” in England instead of Rose Valley, the speeches would take on a different tone and cadence. It would force actors to place emphasis on certain syllables and words and give the dialogue a more musical and comic quality.

The first thing that happens in “A Murder Has Been Arranged” is the stage is flung into darkness as the secretary, Miss Groze, is crossing it. She screams in general, then screams for the cook, who apparently knows where the switch for the lights is. Colleen Marker’s call for the cook, Mrs. Wragg, has no tone to it. It registers with neither command, urgency, nor fear. It just hangs there without an emotion or purpose attached to it. Let alone the polished, professional sound, Marker’s efficient, officious secretary would affect.

Susan Dewey, as Wragg, comes on to show her character to be a regular chatterbox, full of stories and complaints about how she is the only one in the kitchen and is working without much direction and has 30 things on her mind in addition to the task at hand. Dewey makes her scene comic, but she rushes her lines and gives them little inflection. The sense of the ducky, sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued, and garrulous servant that Williams created and that is a staple of British comedies from this period (1930), is absent. Dewey isn’t wrong in her approach, just incomplete. It was up to Gafgen to slow her down, decide where lines could be pointed or even conspiratorial, and lead her to the prototype character she is, and that did not happen.

So the first scenes provide a lot of information but not much theater, tautness, or entertainment. They lack the patina of sophistication Miss Groze would try to convey and classic comic tone Mrs. Wragg is meant to supply. These sequences don’t invite you into the proceedings or make you undividedly curious about what might erupt. Yes, when you hear that Sir Charles has to live five more hours to claim his legacy, you know something will intervene between the nobleman and his inheritance, but Marker and Dewey have not put you on edge enough. Their gambit is all unemphasized parlor talk, with Groze rolling her eyes and hoping the talkative Wragg will finish her litany and head back to work on preparing her menu.

With the exception of Susan Wefel as Sir Charles’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Arthur, the men in the cast own this production. The pace improves when Brock D. Vickers comes on stage as a man who pretends to be a reporter interested in interviewing Sir Charles about his impending fortune and eccentric idea for a party — a costume ball on a rented theater stage — but who is really looking to find time with Sir Charles’s wife, Beatrice, to whom he offers love and good times in lieu of millions.

Joel Guerrero adds energy and a dash of fun to the proceedings when he comes on as Sir Charles. Guerrero is so charismatic, you want nothing to happen to his character, but that is because of the actor’s conviviality and not because Gafgen has set it up for Sir Charles to be particularly sympathetic. Most of the people around him are such stiffs, Guerrero showing any spirit at all is bound to brighten up the production and give you someone to like and watch with interest.

Unlike the characters in the production of “Private Lives” that just closed at the Walnut, the people assembled on stage at the Hedgerow have no lilt in their conversation. It all seems to be a one-note discussion of Maurice Mullins and whether anyone knows his whereabouts and if anyone thinks he would have the temerity to show up at Sir Charles’s celebration. It is difficult to stay interested in such palaver. It sounds repetitious and lacks the cachet of parlor talk or even signs of real dread or concern on the part of the speakers.

Once again, Williams’s play is an occasion of lines blandly recited. The cast needs to supply a sense of byplay, the idea that they are listening and responding to one another. About the only action that emerges is when Wefel’s Mrs. Arthur suspects Vickers’s gigolo, Jimmy North, of being Maurice Mullins and pulls a gun on him to keep him at bay and warn him to attempt no harm to Sir Charles.

This all happens so suddenly, it’s like a wake-up call. Oh, it’s time to pay more attention. In Gafgen’s production, the suddenness also makes the sequence seem out of kilter. Why, now, is Mrs. Arthur being so defensive, and what did Jimmy do to make Mrs. Arthur so suspicious? Gafgen has to build more interior logic and subtle motivation into that scene. As it stands, Wefel and Vickers spring to an abrupt action the effect of which dissolves just as quickly.

David Nikolas adds a bit of dash when he enters revealing right away that he is Maurice Mullins, that he bears no ill will against Sir Charles for getting the whole inheritance, and that he wants to dine with his lucky distant relative and his party.

Interestingly enough, Wefel’s Mrs. Arthur takes a shine to Nikolas’s Mullins and speaks to him quietly, even pettingly, instead of casting a suspicious eye or aiming a firearm towards him. We need to see more of why Mrs. Arthur accepts Mullins into her company and why she believes his happiness for Sir Charles is genuine after she flew into such a tizzy over Jimmy who never said anything threatening and was, at the most, vague, for Beatrice’s sake, about his true identity.

In Gafgen’s production, no one has reason to be on such tenterhooks. The director keeps things cold but cordial. No one exhibits the nervousness or emotions that would lead to an uproar. The company is all so placid around Mullins, you’d think he was a member of their set for years and that his benignity towards Sir Charles and the events of 11 o’clock are authentic.

We., as an audience, are left to our own devices to assemble the pieces of Williams’s puzzle and to assign motives and expectations to the characters. We know several things, including that Sir Charles is regarded most highly by his mother-in-law who has visions of £2 million dancing in her head, and the cook, Mrs. Wragg who, as a simpler woman than the others, just likes preparing meals for someone who appreciates them.

Throughout this period of waiting for something to occur or to have a reason to lift our eyebrows, Vickers helps by making Jimmy a figure of genuine curiosity. You know he is interested in taking Beatrice away from Sir Charles, and you hear him make a cryptic telephone call that may have summoned Mullins. Little of this is explored, but Vickers has a suave coolness that keeps you guessing. Wefel establishes Mrs. Arthur as a woman of practicality. She raised her daughter to marry well, which means wealthily, and Sir Charles more than fills the bill. Vickers’s Jimmy is handsome and has some panache, but he doesn’t have Sir Charles’s title or millions.

Guerrero, by being so affable and welcoming to everyone, particularly Mullins, strikes one as ingenuous. For a man who studies and writes about ghosts, he is calm and shows no sign of worry or suspicion. Perhaps he thinks the ghost he’s written about so thoroughly will come in time to warn him if danger to his person is imminent. Mrs. Arthur, Wragg, and Groze have all had a possible encounter with the ghost. At least they report hearing noises and seeing a mysterious woman down a dark theater corridor.

Nothing concrete is done with the information in these reports. None of the actresses even shudder or react she speaks of her character’s otherworldly experience.

That’s the issue. Situations that would foment fear or concern perish with a simple statement. There’s no follow-through in terms of effect on a character or his or her attitude. A ghost, particularly a portentous one, should cause alarm or promulgate a call to action.

Nope. Like Clem Kadiddlehopper, the characters such mention something unusual in passing and let it go at that. “Doh-dee-oh-doh-doh-doh.”

In the second act, when the ghost makes a couple of pertinent appearances, there is no magic or sense of wonder emanating from the Hedgerow stage. Lily Dwoskin’s entrance is treated as matter-of-factly as everything else in Gafgen’s staging. You’d think the characters have all seen a ghost every day of their lives. How can they not react to something so supernatural, especially when Sir Charles tells the significance of this particular ghost in his book.

Another chance at theater missed! And one more is to come, a Banquo-like emergence than should stun and, possibly be scary, but that plays as just another gimmick in spite of some acting by Guerrero.

Oh, one more yet. Act Two includes a costume party for which the guest are to dress as a favorite historical character and potential ghost. Mrs. Arthur, for instance, comes as Marie Antoinette, head yet attached, and Miss Groze dresses as Mary, Queen of Scots. The characters show off and explain their costumes, but Gafgen fails to find the fun in the scene, or even the irony that the dinner is proceeding at planned although the guest of honor has been poisoned to death (and not by Mrs. Wragg’s soup). Gafgen needed to make a pageant of the costumes, to show their wit and to underscore how each persona of the dead matched that of the character appearing as him or her.

Nothing in “A Murder Has Been Arranged” plays with palpability. No atmosphere is created. The theater does not become tense, let alone intense.

Joel Guerrero, in his gregarious way, makes you wonder why anyone would want to harm Sir Charles. He seems the sort who would give Mullins a gift of some kind in consolation and who would entertain a wife sufficiently. The one pang you feel throughout Gafgen’s production comes when Sir Charles dies, not because you’ll miss the character as much in mourning for losing Guerrero’s liveliness on stage.

David Nikolas supplies some energy, but it animates a villain’s smugness, which isn’t as satisfying as a host’s largesse. Nikolas plays Mullins well, holding his cards close to his vest and ingratiating himself to all by being pleasant.

Until that is, the group, led by Beatrice, becomes bent on foiling him by proving he murdered Sir Charles.

Brock D. Vickers, as mentioned, brings some sophistication to the production. His Jimmy is obviously well-mannered and, although he lies to gain passage to Sir Charles’s party, a straight shooter who can make Beatrice happy.

Allison Bloechl needs to grab more focus as Beatrice. She is a central figure but seems to float in and out of the action instead of dominating it as she should. Bloechl has to go deeper and find the core of Beatrice, so you get a sense of how she really regards her husband, whether she’s humoring or serious about Jimmy, and if she could thrive long without Sir Charles’s wealth to support her.

These questions remain mysteries because Bloechl keeps all on the surface and plays lines and moments more than she build a complete character.

Susan Dewey is entertaining as Mrs. Wragg. She certainly has some of the more amusing lines. Nothing Dewey does is wrong, per se, but I would preferred it if she thought through her lines more thoroughly and found the gossipy flounce in them. Wragg is the conventional Cockney maid, and Dewey needs to give her a little more cheek.

Susan Wefel lets you see Mrs. Arthur is most interested in money and status. She comes at Jimmy with her best Bette Davis intonations and reminds her daughter of all she would be sacrificing if she trades Charles for Jimmy.

Colleen Marker finds the right rigidity as Miss Groze, a woman who wants respect and will command it with her efficient demeanor if she can’t garner it because of her age or class.

Though her posture and disdaining attitude work, Marker has to work on her dialogue. It didn’t sound conversational, or as if she wanted to communicate. The coldness Groze shows towards Sir Charles’s entourage can remain in her eye or erect stance. Her voice and her exchanges with everyone have to be a bit more flexible. She can have formal, suspicious byplay with Jimmy, but her tone to Beatrice, Mrs, Arthur, and even Mrs. Wragg should be more natural.

Among stage business that doesn’t get developed, Marker’s Groze hints at some kind of liaison with Maurice Mullins. If this is true, it can inform her scenes with Jimmy, whom she might suspect is a detective. It would also affect her attitude towards Sir Charles and his family. The signs of duplicity last for but a second, then are never seen again, so why were they introduced in the first place?

Lily Dwoskin needs to be more ephemeral, more otherworldly as the ghost. Her flesh seems too, too solid, and the red dress she wears gives her corporeal dimension a ghost garbed more diaphonously would not have. Dwoskin is good at moving from dumb show to the point to which the ghost is ready to speak.

Zoran Kovcic’s cluttered stage of a set was effective, but I wonder if, since “Arranged” is set in a theater, a more elegant table and sitting area would have been more indicative of Sir Charles’s taste. Cathy Miglionico’s costumes suited the class and station of each character.

A show about the occult needs to have magic, especially in the last scenes when the murdered reappear. Gafgen has to concentrate more on creating an atmosphere of tension, one of which anything can happen because much is foreshadowed, and we are expectant. “A Murder Has Been Arranged” is not the obvious, flat play it appears to be at the Hedgerow. No doubt, it’s a dated chestnut of sorts, but Williams has plotted carefully enough for the show to be absorbing in the right hands. This time, mystery and the elements that make it work dramatically slipped through Hedgerow’s fingers,

“A Murder Has Been Arranged” runs through Sunday, March 29, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, in Rose Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. A 2 p.m. matinee is scheduled for Wednesday, March 25. Tickets range from $34 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-565-4211 or by visiting www.hedgerowtheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

 

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