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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the June 2, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘Murder by the Book’

‘Murder by the Book,” the title of the play running at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater through Saturday, June 19, first struck me as a step-by-step book of directions for murder. Why not? There’s a recipe for almost everything these days, so why not murder?

Was I ever wrong! This is a murder mystery as a play.

Written by British writers Duncan Greenwood and Robert King, “Murder” first played in 1982 in London, where it was praised for its crisp, witty exchanges and its unpredictable outcome.

Robert Thick, co-owner of Off-Broadstreet, designed the show and directs it at a fast pace. Ann Raymond did the costumes, one of which figures in the plot: it’s a disguise to throw suspicion off the real killer. Did I say killer? So it may seem.

The five-character play revolves around the actions — and for much of the first act, the inaction — of critic and successful British murder mystery book writer, Selwyn Piper, brilliantly played by veteran actor Tom Stevenson. His wife, Imogen Piper (the lovely Janet Gray holds the stage), is a businesswoman with a private income. She wants to divorce Selwyn, saying they are always quarreling. Selwyn refuses to divorce her.

Meanwhile, Selwyn’s supposedly pert and proper young secretary, Christine Scott (Lauren K. Brader), is romantically involved with Selwyn’s next door apartment neighbor, Peter Fletcher (Erik J. Ransom). Fletcher is a fan of Selwyn’s books, has learned detective skills from them, and is ready with motives. He’s also, as will come out, an insurance agent holding Selwyn and Imogen’s $100,000 life insurance policy. John Douglas (Steve Lobis), Selwyn’s publisher, drops by to discuss book and movie rights with Selwyn.

Little is certain or fixed in the play, and what seems certain changes. Peppered with sharp, vitriolic dialogue, the play has more twists than a line of bric-a-brac, and plenty of reversals and double crosses. Try to keep track of who’s doing what to whom and with what. Is there even a murder?

Mix guns, liquor, disguises, whisky, poison pills, hoaxes, locked doors, an insurance policy at stake, a found synopsis for a thriller by Selwyn, a planted scarf beside the “corpse,” and you have the ingredients for a thriller. Things are seldom what they seem; betrayal is commonplace, but is greeted with easy sophistication. Fact and fiction mingle. The play is full of surprises. Unexpected relationships and liaisons come to light and schemes change. The play is all plot.

Don’t look for depth of character. There’s no emotional involvement for the audience; rather, it’s an intellectual exercise to keep you guessing.

But laugh at the clever, edgy, sometimes vicious repartee, and enjoy the interplay of nonfiction and fiction. The only clue to what’s happening comes from Selwyn: “I thrive on the unexpected.”

Once it gets under way, the play, like a good murder mystery book, is never dull. Summing up, Selwyn removes himself further from the supposed reality of the play he’s in: “The whole evening has been a most successful experiment.”

And how does it end? With a sudden black-out as the principal characters are on stage and about to drink their liquor-filled glasses. Do the glasses contain anything else? Though written over two decades ago, it’s a post-modern ending. Pick your own ending: Who’s alive? Who’s dead? All or none? Have fun.

—Murder by the Book, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell. Through Saturday, June 19. Friday and Sunday, $22.50; Saturday, $24. Call 609-466-2766 for reservations.

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