One could easily suspect there is an outbreak of farcical spoofs in New Jersey theaters given the recent and current productions of “The 39 Steps” at the George Street Playhouse (ended on May 20); “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the New Jersey Repertory Company (through May 27) and “Are You There, McPhee?” at McCarter (through June 3). Since there is no obvious reason or proposed cure for the sudden appearance of this inexplicably invasive/pervasive genre, or any hopes or means by which to stop it, I am happily obliged to welcome the very funny “Slippery As Sin,” a world premiere (dare I say it?) spoof of old Hollywood murder mysteries, the B variety that filled out the lower half of a double bill during the 1930s and 1940s.
The good news is that its author, David Lee White, and director, Adam Immerwahr, have not only created a fast-moving, laugh-outloud howler, but also delivered a nifty 90-minute entertainment that gives us every reason to suspect that “Slippery as Sin” will have a prolonged life after this production closes. How nice for those characters that have to end up dead.
White’s affection for the farce and his flair for writing them was first apparent to me in his “Blood,” produced in 2009 at the Passage Theater. That he injects his own commendably progressive philosophical, political, and social views into the plot without being preachy is a trick that he uses with great ingenuity.
By all means the plot is worthy of investigation, if not White’s barely disguised digs at the ills that confront us politically and socially today. And speaking of society, what is it about former socialite cum faux crystal ball gazer Madam Sarah Beltham (June Ballinger) who has fallen upon hard times since the death of her husband that make us think she is insincere as she prepares an engagement party for her niece Lolly (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) in the dingy Victorian living room of the old mansion, wonderfully evoked by set designer Jeff VanVelsor. And isn’t there something strange going on not only between her and Lolly’s uncle Randolph (Brian Anthony Wilson), a blustering, wealthy industrialist/capitalist who rants and raves about the threat of radical leftists but also with Morrison, the obligatory lurking butler (Trent Blanton)?
Though the plot has its share of double and triple crosses, it is the horrifically and gruesomely executed murders that are the real gaspers. All are quite brilliantly calculated to provoke laughter all the while there are blinding flashes of lightning (kudos to lighting designer Paul Kilsdonk), bone-chilling claps of thunder and the hard-slamming of doors (heard loud and often enough to shatter the characters’ equilibrium).
At the center of the play is more than slightly paranoid but also meticulous clue-gatherer Master Detective Dorrington (Greg Wood). That his young assistant Harry (Justin Jain) is not only Lolly’s fiancee but also the clueless son of the ruthless and lecherous Randolph inevitably adds complexity to the ensuing chaos.
The play is cleverly framed by the dashing Dorrington’s smugly self-congratulatory narrative. This allows him to slip in and out of the scenes in his pursuit of the arch criminal Diabolicus who he suspects has been committing the murders, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Nothing like this could work without the firmly farcical hand of director Immerwahr and the panache of his company of farceurs that willingly and whole-heartedly submit to the over-the-top style this play demands. Of course it is impossible not to laugh at lines like “I’ll stay with the body,” and “One of you in this house must be a murderer.” Or, this more typical example of White’s cleverly politicized posturing, as posed by Dorrington during his investigation of the murders, “Who do you think leads those anarchists and radicals? We’re dealing with a master criminal, the likes of which society has never seen. Some one who can get every subversive to do his bidding.” I suspect, however, that the audience and I were mostly responding to the way the actors embrace White’s more delectably nostalgic dialogue.
Wood is marvelous as the obsessive-compulsive take-charge sleuth who, unlike the renowned Sherlock Holmes, is less interested in finding out who dunnit than in twisting situations and evidence to suit his agenda, a delightful conceit. Ballinger (also artistic director at Passage), who is gussied up (amusing costumes by Robin I. Shane) to look like cross between the Madwoman of Chaillot and Madam Arcaty, is hilarious as the deviously ditsy Madam Beltham. We could not ask for more from the delightful Abbott-Pratt, who screams louder than Fay Wray, or from the others who when seen either dead or alive, attested to the fact the genre is being kept alive at least for the next couple of weeks in Trenton.
“Slippery As Sin,” Passage Theater, 205 Front Street, Trenton. Through June 3. For tickets ($25 and $30) call 609-293-0766. www.passagetheatre.org.