Monday, June 26, 2017

Reveling in the Mystery of Nero Wolfe in Might As Well Be Dead

Nostalgia can be a beautiful thing. 


Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

Continuing our cinematic theme for the month of June, I have to tell you another little bit of my past: I am obsessed with Hollywood's "golden age." Nothing makes me happier than a snowy day, a great glass of wine and a series of Thin Man films lined up on my projector. I can happily bathe in the luminous sepian tones of Myrna Loy, William Powell, Clark Gable and Jane Greer for hours without pause, and I regularly enjoy dipping my toes into work by authors like Dashiell Hammett and Ian Fleming on the regular.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

This explains why I was so delighted to enjoy the premiere of Might As Well Be Dead at Park Square Theatre on Friday, a world premiere commission for a new story in the Nero Wolfe* mystery series. Surrounded by fellow cinephiles (and hardcore murder mystery fans, including the delightful Wolfe Pack), I reveled in this marvelous new story that will please any fans of old Hollywood, murder mystery, detective shows and plain old good storytelling.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

Might As Well Be Dead picks up in private detective Nero Wolfe's apartment as a woman commissions him to find her long-estranged son. The case seems hopeless, but Wolfe uses his intuitive understanding of initials and missing persons to find the man, who is currently on trial for a murder he did not commit. Loathe to inform his client of this disappointing turn of events and risk losing his retainer, Wolfe sets out to prove the man's innocence. Along the way he meets a motley crew of local socialites; brushes with some high rolling gangster forces; discovers many illicit romantic trysts; and enjoys some absurdly luxurious meals. I should mention that the footwork here (as well as the narration) is committed by Wolfe's amiable assistant Archie Goodwin, a charming fellow who glosses over Wolfe's more brusque demeanor. The crime is eventually solved - although I won't tell you how - and many captivating details are strewn throughout to lighten the mood, like a clever tango dance and the elucidation of those lavish menus.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

E.J. Subkoviak stars as Nero Wolfe and brings just the right gruff bluster to his part, preening over his sitting room like the peacock Wolfe is. He's well partnered with Derek Dirlam as Wolfe's assistant Archie. It takes a while for Dirlam to warm up, but once he does he proves to be a seamless guide through the narrative. Michael Paul Levin is hilarious as Wolfe's foil Inspector Cramer, with just the right comedic timing and over-the-top outrage at being passed up at every turn of the investigation. And the women of the cast really light up the stage; it was so lovely to see a diverse group of women well utilized (even though one could have made a case that historically they were irrelevant; new writers, take note! You can absolutely improve upon history. This casting was inspired.). Am'Ber Montgomery sashays through scenes as Wolfe's secretary Dol and Suki Molloy, the secretive wife of the dead man. Austene Van is marvelous as several characters, including Wolfe's haughty client Mrs. Herrold. And Marisa Tejeda is vivacious as the informant Delia Brandt, lighting up the stage every time she comes on.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

The set is static but extremely well utilized, covering every ounce of vertical space. The focal point is Wolfe's office, which has the overstuffed furniture, plethora of books and dim lighting one would expect of such a private and intelligent man. To either side are an apartment overhang for investigating Suki and a curved staircase that is used in multiple ways. The vignettes are passed between quickly and elegantly, and the strategic lighting helps poise them as asides in the action. I really enjoyed how thoughtfully it was laid out, and it kept the pace moving quickly and focus on the action onstage. Costumes evoke that well-heeled 1940's aesthetic I love so much, and everyone seemed chic but comfortable.

Photo by  Petronella J. Ytsma

I can't overstate how much fun I had seeing Might As Well Be Dead. It tickled all the elements of my old Hollywood funnybone that I love so much, and it was so wonderful to have a truly escapist night at the theater. I love the story behind the origin of the show, too - the playwright originates from Minnesota and the entire process was crowdsourced through Park Square's Mystery Writers Producers Club, further proving why having general audience input in the creative process is a really good thing. Might As Well Be Dead is fun, imaginative, enticing and a breath of fresh air. As we all know I love socially conscious art and I think it's a really good thing to hash out social issues on stage, but sometimes you need a break from all the seriousness in the world. Might As Well Be Dead is the perfect example of such an escapist show, done to pitch perfection by Park Square and ready to suit anyone's gumshoe tendencies. There are so many cute touches throughout the theater (like voting for the culprit with pearls at intermission - make sure you don't miss it!), and I am sure audiences of any age can enjoy this wonderful show. Might As Well Be Dead runs through July 30 at Park Square Theatre; for more information or to get tickets, click on this link.

*For the uninitiated (like me), Nero Wolfe has been around for quite some time. I'd encourage you to check out some of his amazing book series, or the television adaptation of his stories (which you can find for free here on YouTube!). It was great Sunday viewing and a whole lot of fun.