Marvin Cheiten’s “Oh, Deer!!,” playing through this weekend at the Hamilton Murray Theater on Princeton’s campus has kernels of fun and madcap ideas sprinkled throughout. There’s plenty of fun to be had and investment to be made in investigating how the parts do (or don’t) fit together.
The third in a series of drawing-room-style mysteries, “Oh, Deer!” features father-and-daughter detective team Tom and Thalia on a quest to exonerate Thalia’s best friend, Courtney, who stands accused of murdering her uncle. The whole thing’s set in Princeton, with plenty of orange-and-black jokes and fun little asides to those of us with an attachment to the town (parking tickets!).
You’ve got, at first glance, the makings of what could be a really fun whodunit, complete with a sassy leading lady in 20-year-old Thalia (Phoenix Gonzalez). Her relationship with her Princeton-alum father (Chris Berger) has the potential for all sorts of interesting detective work, a la Nick and Nora (name-checked at least once in the play), with shades of a similar detective team in the late, lamented television series “Veronica Mars.”
And we get all sorts of interesting and kooky supporting players, including a gun-nut taxidermist heiress (Claudia Stoy), an oddly German (and germane) Princeton police department detective (Joseph E. Thomas), a leather-clad muscle head boyfriend (Nicholas Genta), and — and this is the prize — Agatha, a Brunhilde-esque battletank of a maid (Curtis Kaine). Agatha’s a gem of a character, mostly because, as written and played, she’s pretty much what would happen if Winston Churchill took on the role of Alice from “The Brady Bunch.” I’m telling you right here — if Cheiten devised a series of adventures for Agatha, I’d watch ‘em all. “Agatha Takes a Holiday!” “Agatha Abroad!” “Agatha on the Seine!” She (he?) has all the makings of a wonderful, flavorful comedic character, and is the one true breakout of the play.
The other characters also have a few moments — particularly Carolyn Vasko’s Courtney, who somehow makes a punk rock/fashion-forward girl turned prison inmate grounded and subtly charming amidst all the chaos and implausibility.
With a little tweaking, this could be a smash-hit murder mystery — it plays well within (and against) conventions, and gives plenty of enjoyable stock characters. But as it stands, it may not be that sort of play — out-of-place references to bestiality, incest, and a few other eyebrow-raising moments transport it firmly out of that arena into a realm in which some theatergoers might not feel comfortable. There are little moments of sex-farce, hard-boiled crime drama, and teenage-soap-opera angst. It’s important to remember it is a new play and may continue to take shape. The uneven tone is a problem, but a correctable one.
The design elements of the show definitely have the mark of care and investment — Jeffery Van Velsor’s set design is maybe the finest I’ve ever seen in the space and is a fun recreation of an archetypal Princeton manor home. The roughly 30 stuffed animals/heads/etc. make for a nicely absurd touch, as well. Bill Kirby’s sound design evokes the best elements of classic radio plays, with deliberately hokey and effective ’30s-film style scoring and nice little flourishes in the sound effects.
It’s clear that a lot of energy has been poured into this play. There are moments of enjoyment. And if this play continues to be developed to further bringing out the coherent qualities in the stories Cheiten wants to tell, “Oh, Deer!” has a shot at becoming a solid, if hammy, take on the murder mystery. For example, the creation of Agatha is inspired; the evening is almost worth taking in, for his/her virtues alone. While “Oh Deer!” may still be deciding what it wants to be, there are ample possibilities contained in it, which have the potential to successfully convey a complete, wholly-developed story to an audience.
“Oh Deer!!,” Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater. Friday and Saturday, August 27 and 28, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, August 29, 2 p.m. Marvin Harold Cheiten’s newest comedy adventure directed by Dan Berkowitz. Actors include Phoenix Gonzalez, Chris Berger, Joseph Thomas, Carolyn Vasko, and Nick Genta. $18. 609-258-7062 or www.Marvincheiten.com.