Detecting Noir

Buntport stalks laughter.

McGuinn and Murry is a spoof of those '40s detective movies in which the men wore fedoras and the women had gams. It's a lighthearted, skimming take on the genre that's neither cliche-ridden nor weighted by scholarship. The helium that keeps this smart, entertaining trifle aloft is Buntport Theater Company's irrepressible inventiveness.

A pair of washed-up detectives slump around their dusty office. The phone never rings. No shadowed, mysterious, cigarette-holder-wielding blonde ever appears at the door. McGuinn is a onetime prizefighter who disgraced himself by throwing a match. Murry is a tough broad, given to barking out orders. To pass the time and keep their wits sharp, the two P.I.s try to stump each other with hypothetical cases. Murry sets McGuinn a puzzler that involves a letter sent to his home, but the letter gets into the wrong hands; soon McGuinn is frantically pursuing what he believes to be a real case -- in which he is somehow the suspect -- while Murry applauds the veracity of what she perceives as his performance.

Obviously, there's a lot of playing with frames of reality here, and transformation rules. Brian Colonna and Erin Rollman, who play McGuinn and Murry, respectively, take on many additional personae, signaling the changes through adjustments in voice and posture, or with props that serve as a kind of shorthand. Colonna assumes a black eye patch and becomes the lover of McGuinn's wife, Budgie. It takes only a change of footwear, a fluffing of her blouse and a shuffling off of Murry's severe jacket for Rollman to metamorphose into the breathy adulteress. The set is transformed with the same economy and dexterity. Everything evolves from the office's hefty desk and its two chairs. Panels slide aside; boxes are opened and props tossed in or whisked out of them. The desk becomes the kitchen of McGuinn's home, complete with stove, cabinets and a clothesline sporting a tabbed rubber girdle. With a little more manipulation, the desk is a bar, a cityscape, a park bench, the lair of a fat, wheezing Mafia reprobate apparently based on Marlon Brando. Much of the evening's entertainment stems from the surprising and creative shifts in character and set.

Brian Colonna and Erin Rollman in McGuinn and 
Murry.
SamAnTha Schmitz
Brian Colonna and Erin Rollman in McGuinn and Murry.

Conventions are created, then casually broken. For example, the one door on the set is raised and appears to open onto the top of the investigators' desk or, in the household scene, the kitchen counter. I'd guess this was the only way Buntport could make the desk-becomes-everything-else concept work structurally. When the door first opens, we're surprised momentarily, but the two actors play it straight, and we come to accept the anomaly. No sooner have we done so than Budgie snaps at her husband to stop walking on the countertop.

There's a knowingness to all of this, a self-referential quality. At one point, parodying Lana Turner's famous line about whistling from To Have and Have Not, Rollman explains to Colonna how to exit: "You just put your hand on the knob, and you walk out...the door." The peculiarities of the door in question only underline the humor. If there's a misstep, Rollman and Colonna treat it as if it were intentional, and somehow their skill and assurance, along with the mocking quality of the entire show, make the moment doubly funny.

Props take on a life of their own, and scale becomes meaningless. When all of the characters need to meet at the park, they arrive in a succession of toy cars, which are guided over the surface of a kind of relief map by the actors.

The only problem is that the set changes, while fun to watch, take too long. The dialogue is witty and bright, but it's not so deep that we want to contemplate a scene's final lines for several minutes. A piece like this demands speed.

Both actors are talented, but it's really Rollman, with her elastic face and ability to morph from character to character, who carries the show. She gives life and spirit to each of her characters: mannish Murry, flirty Budgie, the creepily disembodied-seeming fat man. There's something unformed about her stage persona, as if she were just waiting to flow into one role or another. The characters she creates can be hard-edged and defined or oddly amorphous. She can make you laugh by raising an eyebrow, and she seems to know instinctively just how long to hold the expression for maximum effect without milking it. Sometimes she appears to have the unfinished, partially defined quality of a James Thurber cartoon. Colonna, too, has wonderful moments -- particularly the flashback during which he re-creates the thrown fight, striving mightily to help McGuinn's wimpy opponent score a hit.

Like all of Buntport's scripts, this one was created (through both writing and improvisation) by the entire group -- Hannah Duggan, Erik Edborg, Matt Petraglia, SamAnTha Schmitz and Evan Weissman -- in addition to Rollman and Colonna. And, like all their work, it has inspired moments along with a few that are less inspired.

The first time I visited the Buntport Theater, there were six people in the audience. Every time I return, I see that the numbers have grown. And this is a crowd you can't pigeonhole: children, teenagers, young adults and their parents, entire families that have arrived together, people who look like students, businessfolk, bus drivers, intellectuals, bums or bohemians. Buntport is attracting a following not because everything they do is completely successful, but because their work is sophisticated, welcoming, unpretentious and, above all, original.

 
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