PROVO — In the first few minutes of Duncan Greenwood and Robert King’s Murder by the Book, a writer and literature critic by the name of Selwyn Piper is shot dead. He had just finished disparaging the book of one of his rival authors and told his secretary and typist that it may just be “one of those reviews.” While we both share a joy of reviewing, our desire to eviscerate others could not be farther apart, and I only do so when I hope to ward others off from a painful production or evening. Having had a lovely evening at the Covey Center with exactly what the playbill described — a witty and lighthearted thriller — I think I will be safe from the fate Piper suffers in the play’s opening scenes, and this fun production is spared from my pen’s sharpest edges.
The intimate black box theatre was an ideal setting for this small cast mystery. It was dressed in rich detail that included photos of the characters, inside jokes about the story, convincingly made props (with no prop master credited, unfortunately) which included details that were easy to see up close. (Most notably, there were some envelope stamps that even my guest for the evening, who just finished several years schooling at Cambridge, was convinced they were authentic.) It is a tribute to the hard work of the skilled set of six scenic construction and painting team members, and it enriched the whole show from start to finish.
The show begins with Selwyn Piper (played by Adam M. Argyle), a smug and longwinded author discussing with his secretary Christine Scott (played by Annika Mikkelson) the plot of a murder mystery he views as being unworthy of his time to finish. As they discuss this book and his estranged wife, Imogen (played by Andy Morgan), Piper has several witty quips about her that his face reveals are coming long before his words do. Many of the show’s early jokes involved intricate setups which Argyle clearly enjoyed both setting up and delivering upon. Shortly after this, Imogen appears in his apartment and lays out in excruciating detail her plans to kill him and the reasons she has for his demise. While her gun is trained on him as they banter, both the pacing and the emotional stakes of the scene feel relatively, well, dead.
One of Imogen’s reasons for killing Selwyn include his alleged affair with Christine, but only the faintest flickers of this appeared in the opening scene, even when the dialogue gave room for more possible play for a relationship to be hiding. Later, this affair turns out to be nothing of substance, but in the early part of the play, it would have been useful to believe that there was a small chance it was true. Furthermore, at times the actors seemed to be searching for a word as an actor, and not a character. I am not sure if this was out of opening night jitters, or if they were still finding the footing of their British accents, but the pacing was a problem through many parts of the comedy.
Still, the show was enjoyable. The characters individually knew and understood their goals and intentions, even as they evolved and changed during the production. Each character has hidden motives, and nearly everyone doublecrosses another character, sometimes two or even three times. I found myself laughing often, which was clearly the goal of Murder by the Book. It just lacked the stakes which would have made some of the later twists and turns more compelling as events changed.
After Imogen shoots her husband, she is seen fleeing the flat in disguise by Scott and shortly thereafter a neighbor, Peter Fletcher (played by Kobe Black). Black’s portrayal of Fletcher as a quirky neighbor fascinated with the murder was ideal. Despite his aloof nature, Peter is surprisingly adept at intuiting what has occurred and why. Black plays all of his character’s realizations with an air of being woefully ignorant to the stakes of encountering a dead body with a prime suspect in the room. But, again, that would have played even funnier if it felt like the characters were amplifying the magnitude of the situation rather than downplaying it. Black allowed each moment in the play to feel spontaneous, and he and Mikkelson had strong chemistry as they sleuth their way through the play.
Eventually, Selwyn returns from the seeming dead, and his presence in act 2 brought an increased urgency to the show. Argyle had a strong performance with his accent and was able to create increasingly convincing reasons for things happening as the story spiraled into a series of delightfully foiled murders and hidden motives that kept taking the show in new directions. Argyle was also tasked with the challenge of being convincingly dead on stage for about a half hour which is no small feat with an intimate theater space. His later scenes brought spontaneity, and he wore his heart right on his face as the power see-sawed between the many would-be criminals in the story’s unfolding.
Through all of this, the bumbling publisher of Selwyn’s books, John Douglas (played by Marc Haddock) found himself implicated in the secrets of many of the other characters. He was the only character who seemed to be playing effectively the effect that so many drinks which the characters share would have on him. Many of the shows best moments involved Haddock’s deer-in-the-headlights response to being caught up in the show’s many antics, as well as others responses to him saying precisely the wrong thing. While Haddock and Morgan lacked even the seedlings of believability in their characters’ affair, Haddock brought a character to life that enriched the shows most outrageous moments with silliness and congenial befuddlement.
Murder by the Book, overall, is not much like an Agatha Christie mystery as the director’s note suggests. Rather than layers of intrigue and dramatic misdirection in Christie’s works, Murder by the Book seemed to simply layer new and outrageous circumstances, like a highly coordinated improvisation. It was funny, and became more engaging as the evening progressed. Lynne D. Bronson’s direction, while strong with individual actors, lacked cohesiveness of the whole. The challenges with pacing aside, the characters just did not seem to have much moment to moment chemistry. The direction shied away from most moments of flirtation or innuendo that the script was rife with, and it created many missed opportunities to keep the audience reeling with laughter.
Murder by the book has perhaps too many twist endings, and feels a bit like the third installment of the Lord of the Rings movies. Each time a near satisfying ending occurs, another twist pops up, and while each was enjoyable in its own right, the production suffered from Selwyn’s character enjoying his own writing just a bit too much. And yet, Murder by the Book was still a delightful comedy that made for an excellent evening out. I found myself laughing more and scribbling in my review notebook less as the night went on, and the production hummed right along to a satisfying conclusion.