Saying that you admire the "complications" or the "clever turns" of a script is a polite way of saying that the script stinks. Having said that, Murder by the Book -- a murder-comedy written by Duncan Greenwood and Robert King, directed by Mitchell Nunn for the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre -- doesn't stink, but only because of the able direction of Nunn and the ensemble performances.
Watching this comic variation of a whodunit you might marvel at the twisted plot and nimble wordplay but before too long you get annoyed because the story violates two of the cardinal rules of the whodunit. First, there's no body (until the final second, only a couple of corpses playing possum). Second, the anticipated gratification of who killed whom and why got diluted: even when the lights came on, you expected someone to pop up from the dead.
Is it because two people wrote it, a committee of playwrights? It feels like it. The performances rang true, if the story didn't. Though the acting is good, the actors feel more like hamsters in a laboratory experiment, responding to various stimuli (viz, the script) without knowing the point of the whole experiment. The best part of the play? The dialogue, delivered with brio and panache, each riposte followed immediately by a repartee. This was good. Real good.
It was a matter of pacing. Premature foreplay muddles the climax. The story starts crisp and energetic. Later, though, the story spins out of control. By the end, it's not about us trying to figure out who really what do whom but how long the playwrights could keep piling on double and triple crosses, primary, secondary, and tertiary suspects, and whether or not it was just part of an elaborate, and tedious, bit of research by the mystery writer character.
The characters were credible, especially Selwyn (Noah Wagner), the fabled British mystery writer, and Imogen (Martha Duncan), his estranged wife. Not only were both clever, intelligent, and knowledgeable, they were also smarmy prats who knew they were clever, intelligent, and knowledgeable. So arrogant was he that when he met his faux-end shortly into the first act (and you wondered how long he was doing to lie dead behind the couch), you were downright glad. Though he could write complex plots, he couldn't out-manuever an equally clever Peter (Sean Engard), a fan/neighbor/scam artist and boyfriend of his P.A., Christine (Elspeth Carden). Give Peter a pipe and a goofy hat and he's be the next-door neighbor version of Sherlock Holmes, sifting through evidence, though not for reasons we suspect.
The highlight of the production was the various backs-and-forth between Selwyn and Peter. At first it felt like a famous author had met his match in a reader who was as astute and imaginative as him. That would have been quite the story: cunning (and criminal) writer of mysteries tries to out con an equally cunning reader of his mysteries. Instead the dialogue got submerged in a murder plan that was actually another murder plan that was actually spun into something called "research." The ending felt cheap and unearned: all those digressions and side steps and all we go was this?
Performances are 8 PM, Fri. & Sat., 2 PM, Sun. The show runs until Nov. 20. Tickets are $12-22. The Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. For more info, call 494-1014 or visit www.lbplayhouse.org.