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The growing influence the movies have over theater has its downside. Some theatrical productions try to vie with movie spectacle, for instance, cheapening the theatrical experience, a la Miss Saigon. But Hollywood's influence can also lead to ingenious or charming solutions to theatrical problems. Madeline Walker O'Brien's The Why and...
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The growing influence the movies have over theater has its downside. Some theatrical productions try to vie with movie spectacle, for instance, cheapening the theatrical experience, a la Miss Saigon. But Hollywood's influence can also lead to ingenious or charming solutions to theatrical problems. Madeline Walker O'Brien's The Why and the Wherefore (A Detective's Story) is a case in point. The premiere at the Changing Scene Theater of this odd variation on the murder mystery has some sly and amusing twists that appear to be inspired by movie flashbacks.

A tawdry London flat is the scene of the crime--but whether the two corpses sitting bolt upright in their armchairs were murdered or committed suicide will be left to Inspector Bradley to determine. The couple's cleaning lady arrives first in a preposterous wig, frumpy dress and apron, boasting an even sillier cockney accent. "Mrs. Higgins" (endearingly played by Rachel Shwayder) practices her accent as she takes a nip of liquor and begins to tidy up. It takes her a while to notice the bodies, but then she squeals and calls the cops. As soon as Inspector Bradley arrives, he sees through her disguise and spots her for an American. She claims to know nothing, but when he learns she's an unemployed actress, he gets her to help him imagine a possible explanation for the deaths.

The inspector and the actress comment on the action as the two corpses, Mr. and Mrs. Lazlo, come to life to act out a series of possible scenarios. We've seen this technique in dozens of B-movies, and it works so well here because when the corpses rise up out of their chairs, it's funny. Your suspension of disbelief is shattered several times but instantly forms again as the story goes on.

The first playlet pictures Mrs. Lazlo (Margaret Casart) as the perp. But it won't wash. Even if she murdered her husband (competently portrayed by Michael Par- ker), why would she take her own life? No, more evidence is needed. But there are very few clues, and so the inspector keeps trying to picture the couple's last moments. It certainly looks like suicide when he learns that the highly cultured Mr. Lazlo was dying of some awful disease. When Lazlo's literary agent, Curtis Hall, arrives, he and the inspector envision yet another possible explanation for the couple's death. This scenario is the most likely, and the loose ends appear to be tied up--but that's only because a few loose ends have been tucked neatly away.

Playwright O'Brien takes a tired genre and injects something just a little different into the form--a twist that renews the old formula and engages the audience with the spark of new life. Her dialogue is crisp and witty, her characterizations full and realistic, and her plot just archetypical enough to make us comfortable.

Fortunately for O'Brien, director Trace Oakley cast good people and keeps the action taut yet natural. Particularly impressive is Casart as Pamela Lazlo, the corpse with several personalities. Casart moves from malevolence to benevolence with stylish humor and grace. Nick Guida creates a marvelously cynical literary agent; gangly, pitiless and self-serving, his Curtis Hall has a Jon Lovitz sneer and an oily masculinity.

John P. Tretbar as Inspector Bradley has one of those deep, rich voices we love to hear on radio. On stage, that voice conveys power and intelligence, and his inspector is, despite a few bumbled lines on opening night, a winning addition to the long line of stage detectives.

The Why and the Wherefore ultimately charms because the simple story it tells is as much about character as it is about a mystery. Each of the people we meet has more to them than first meets the eye. Even light entertainment needs those gradations of personality to engage us completely--and O'Brien's characters are all fully shaded.

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