While watching an old-fashioned yarn like Seven Keys to Baldpate, we ought to feel all snug and cozy: Nothing much is going to be asked of us, and we can just settle in and follow the plot twists of a story that makes few demands.
The virtue of Peter Hardie's exceptional set for the Civic's Main Stage production of George M. Cohan's mystery-comedy (through March 6) is that it provides visual comfort to go along with the show's thematic familiarity. With its dark wood and brass fittings, the interior of this hotel really does feel like a refuge from the wintry blasts outside. The Inn is a remote playground where a writer, William Hallowell Magee (Damon C. Mentzer), has come on a bet: Can he write 10,000 words in 24 hours? Events, naturally, conspire to undermine his tranquility.
But Baldpate doesn't deliver much in terms of coherent tone: We keep getting whiplashed between a murder mystery full of threatened violence to a door-slamming farce full of frenzied buffoons. Melodrama dukes it out with farce, and the Civic Theater's Main Stage production emerges only partly victorious.
Melodrama wants to captivate us, so that we're breathlessly transported by events: a howling storm, hidden loot, brandished guns, distressed damsels, quick-thinking heroes. Farce, on the other hand, keeps reminding us that we're sitting contentedly over here while those lunatics over there -- Lord, what fools these mortals be! -- keep chasing one another up and down the stairs.
With all the clunky exposition, it's like two lumbering heavyweights circling each other without throwing any punches. Perhaps the best solution -- which director Melody Deatherage doesn't elicit from her cast -- would be to heighten the melodrama to the level of mustache-twirling while lowering the farce to the Stooges' level.
That way, at least there would be comic contrast in the conflict between the two styles, and we could grin in recognition of just how silly these proceedings are -- much as the hero does in the end.
Magee is the kind of guy, even at 2 am, whose tie is straight and hair slicked back. In his natty and sharply creased gray suit, he's impossibly chipper, always leaning forward slightly at the waist and smiling. Mentzer -- playful when he has the bad guys at gunpoint, earnest about both his writing and his womanizing -- convincingly portrays all aspects of this optimistic hack.
As the caretakers of the wintry hotel, Walt Hefner and Susan Creed make an enjoyable couple, belaboring the obvious and fussing over one another with comic effect. But even here the show isn't as funny as it might have been. During his conversation with the upbeat young reporter, Hefner, as the old caretaker, has a series of uncomprehending responses ("You don't mean to tell me!" and "The dickens you do!") that he could have milked for greater comic effect. Old Mr. Quimby isn't simply incredulous but mocking. It's one thing to be confronted by newfangled ideas and let your jaw go slack; it's another to be surprised at first and then hint at mounting skepticism.
Sara Nicholls asserts her presence as a femme fatale with more physical courage than the other characters -- milquetoasts who put up facades as scheming ruffians and notorious malefactors. (Yes, on the stage in 1913, they talked like that.)
Dale M. White pulls off the commanding presence of the local constable who first investigates crime and then succumbs to its temptations.
After years of doing shows at the Civic, Ted Redman presents some of his best work as "Peters, the hermit," a kind of squealing misanthrope who likes making people foolish. That's because he doesn't like women. (He doesn't much care for the men, either.)
Civic Artistic Director John G. "Jack" Phillips projects dignity in the deus ex machina-like role of the rich man who, in the end, unscrambles the plot's tangled web of many deceptions.
As a bit of Americana and theatrical history, Seven Keys to Baldpate represents a 90-year time-trip back to the way plays were put together by the likes of Cohan, the Yankee Doodle Dandy himself. All in all, it's a very comfortable production. But these Keys don't unlock as much entertainment as they should.