If the financial schemes cooked up in "Whizzer’s Island," the latest play from Princetonian Marvin Harold Cheiten, are the type of fiduciary wizardry that our best and brightest are using to drive our economy, God help us all.
The play, which premiered last weekend, continues Friday through Sunday, August 24 to 26, at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus Friday and Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.
"Whizzer’s Island" is a comic mystery whose plot follows much of the expected formula for the genre – people get killed and it is relatively easy to figure out who did it and why. The heroes are heroic and the villains are villainous. And the butler did it. Sort of.
The father-and-daughter team of Tom Brown (Joe Whelski) and Thalia Brown (Joanne Nosuchinsky) – first introduced in last year’s "Miss Connections" – of which "Whizzer’s Island" is the sequel – form the centerpiece of the play. The Browns travel to a private island off the Jersey Shore to visit Tom’s old college pal, Whizzer Willis, a former Princeton superjock who left the friendly Ivy confines to make his fortune in the world of finance. Whizzer (Michael Giorgio) invites Tom and his late-teenage "pumpkin" to the estate he gained control of after marrying an ailing heiress to hear his latest get-rich-quick scheme.
There the duo meet Claudette (Lauren O’Hara), Whizzer’s cunning stepdaughter; Dr. Soberin (Fernando L. Gambaroni), Whizzer’s business associate, and Roxanne (Cate Adams), Whizzer’s girlfriend who has also, curiously enough, been romantically linked with Tom. Hmmmmm.
After the whole group, along with butler Foxton (Curtis A. Kaine), get together on the island, death soon follows. The first to go is Whizzer himself, and he goes dramatically and broadly, stumbling comically all over the set. When the doctor goes, however, the badly dressed Gambaroni, who brings to the role a mixture of fey camp and smooth, pseudo-European metrosexual macho, plays the moment – his best of the show – well, dying in stages and creating a myriad of absurdly funny expressions.
Thalia, who is given many of the play’s funniest lines, begins to figure out that Claudette may be the murderer, and a bit of physical slapstick comedy/fight – which required a fight choregrapher, Judi Lewis Ockler – ensues between the two.
As Claudette, the spoiled Jersey girl princess whose aspirations toward classiness and society are belied by her nasty disposition and sociopathic tendencies, O’Hara is delicious to look at. She is vampy, if a bit overblown, but she has legs to die for, and costumer Marie Miller makes sure everyone knows that.
As Foxton, the scholar-cum-English butler, Kaine looks and acts like a cross between Sebastian Cabot, Newt Gingrich, and Benny Hill. His anguished, pained self-explicatory monologue, in which he agonizingly chronicles his life’s dramatic arc from Princeton Byzantine history professor to aggrieved house servant and cook is one of the funniest scenes in the play.
The Hamilton Murray Theater is tiny and intimate, and although the play is set in contemporary times, the lighting and set design evoke a class and time that points resolutely to the past. The first thing you will notice about Carrie Ballenger’s set, most likely, would be the Princeton football motif that helps give the stage a decidedly local, but statedly dated ambiance. Dan Berkowitz’s direction is efficient and fast-moving.
As prop master for this production, Sarah Donner shows a nice eye for period furniture and Princetonian-style knicknacks. For example, the four stuffed tigers near the fireplace are a great addition. (If the name Sarah Donner sounds familiar, it’s because Donner is the Princeton-based singer-songwriter who has for the past few years coordinated Indie Music Night at the Griggstown Pavilion. As a set designer Donner works often with McCarter Theater and Princeton University’s department of theater and dance. The lighting, by Christopher Gorzelnik, is soft, not interfering with the red upholstery or the leather trim, punctuated periodically by the effects of lightning on the rainy island.
Although the play is set "down the shore" on a private island in Barnegat Bay, Princeton – the town and especially the university – are never far from the writer’s mind.
So did the butler do it? Well, to avoid a spoiler alert, just suffice it to say that Claudette, who wants control of her daddy’s estate, meets an untimely end, thanks to the machinations of someone who thinks he’d do better in jail than she.
Whizzer’s Island, Friday and Saturday, August 24 and 25, 8 p.m., and Sunday, August 26, 2 p.m. Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. Comic mystery by Princeton resident Marvin Harold Cheiten. Directed by Dan Berkowitz. $15. 609-258-7062.