Thieves and murderers can turn into comic heroes--even guardian angels. The result in My Three Angels at the Westminster Dinner Theatre is an intermittently divine comedy.

The play proposes three miscreants as benevolent figures who watch over a poor but honest family when a rich and treacherous relative tries to ruin it. The devilry that landed the three friends in a penal colony in French Guiana has a positive twist after all: Comedy is subversive.

Comedy is also difficult to do well, as some of the labored performances in this production attest. Still, the show has its rewards--a delightful script and terrific characterizations by the three angels.

Since there's no escape from the island prison, inmates in the colony are rented out to work for respectable folk. Joseph, Alfred and Jules overhear the miserable situation of their employers as they labor to fix the roof of a small shop. The manager of the shop is Felix Ducotel, a dreamy, kindhearted man who is singularly ill-equipped to run any kind of a business. His wife, Emilie, scolds gently, but she is something of a romantic herself. Their innocent young daughter, Marie Louise, is madly in love with a distant cousin who has promised to marry her but has neglected to write for months on end.

The fiance, young Paul, is scheduled to arrive with his miserly old uncle on Christmas Eve. Uncle Henri has conned Felix out of a hotel in France and actually owns the godforsaken shop where the Ducotels live and work: The family lies in peril of its very subsistence. The unholy trio above, however--with no explanation at all from playwrights Sam and Bella Spewak--springs into action to save the Ducotels from their nasty landlord.

The fun here lies in watching the slightly macabre values system of the angels kick in to do some good. Since it's a Christmas-in-the-tropics tale, the three rascals come to represent the three wise men--these murderers and thieves are honest, straightforward and kind, and they know more than everyone else around them. They turn their talents to good ends and then contemplate in casual earnestness whether or not the ends justify the means.

Each of the angels has his own way of helping. Jules steals a chicken from a neighbor's yard and cooks a scrumptious Christmas Eve feast. Alfred, the young lunkhead, fetches and carries everything from people to tropical pets. Joseph can sell anything to anyone--and so starts building up the cash drawer for Felix. He is also an accomplished embezzler who continually tries to fix Felix's badly kept books to make them reflect Felix's actual honesty and decency. And when Uncle Henri proves too troublesome, Joseph and the boys use an all-natural disposal system to remove the old reprobate.

The night I saw the show, the timing was a tad off here and there--some of the actors didn't respond quickly enough, and breakneck timing is essential. Randy Voss is miscast as Mr. Ducotel--he's too young for the role, which really requires an experienced actor on the order of Leo G. Carroll (who played the part in the film version, 1955's We're No Angels). Perhaps because she needs a more sophisticated actor to react to, Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Ducotel blossoms a bit late in the show. Margaret Murphy as Marie Louise is fresh, lively, innocent and completely comfortable on stage, while Gordon Adamson's reading of Henri at times falls a trifle flat, preventing him from creating more than a two-dimensional villain.

But the best news is the angels themselves. John P. Tretbar as Joseph is like an older Kiefer Sutherland, with a fine, booming voice, a diabolical giggle and a kind of impish wisdom that makes his character's good deeds all the funnier. Mark W. Hetelson as Jules lends a kind of gnomish scruffiness to a lively, bright performance. Young Jason Rudofsky as Alfred, the ex-dandy-turned-murderer, complements the two more experienced actors with a natural grace and wit.

The show seems a bit long; a trim here and there might benefit the pacing. But My Three Angels works as holiday craziness--the unexpected good found amid what society thinks of as its dregs.


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