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The Final Straw 

by Michael Bowen


Okay, a confession: I don't get what people see in comedy-thrillers. Tasked with solving a mystery, we're supposed to take all those portentous "clues" seriously and analyze them well -- but every now and then we're also supposed to giggle over some grade-school silliness. Playwrights can't have it both ways. The letter carelessly left on the desktop, the artful disguise sprung on the unsuspecting everyman -- even if they're only red herrings, they can't be simultaneously intriguing and stupid. It's like chess played for slapstick. Let's see, I'll respond to your Queen's Knight's Gambit with Alekhine's Defense, and if you suddenly shift to the Ruy Lopez, well, then, won't that just be a scream?


Why drag the comic thriller into the theater? Why not leave it to armchair sleuths reading paperbacks in their dens? In a good mystery novel, usually we're granted access to the thoughts and quirks of the investigator, whether a hard-boiled gumshoe or an innocent-seeming old biddy. But Ken Whitmore and Alfred Bradley's The Final Twist, like most plays, has no narrator figure -- just characters on a stage, who remain external to us. It's a plot-driven genre, after all; in a whodunit, characters are just ciphers to be moved about on that chuckle-generator of a chessboard.


Fortunately, the quartet of actors in the Interplayers production rise above the caricatures they've been handed. As Sir Merlin Foster, Keith Burkland pulls off an engaging variant of Sir Ian McKellen -- only scheming, insufferable, histrionic but very heterosexual. If audiences recall Burkland's gentle child molester in How I Learned to Drive or his knowing turn-of-the-century patriarch in Ah, Wilderness! from previous seasons and compare those performances to Burkland's choices here, they'll learn a lesson in how an accomplished actor individuates his characters. Stuck with a role that treats credulity like warm taffy, Burkland nevertheless excels.


Steven L. Barron does exasperation well, and, like many of us in the audience for this play, his character here, a desperate young writer, gets to feeling exasperated rather often. As with his previous work at Interplayers (Arsenic and Old Lace, Art), Barron has a knack for conveying the average Joe (not unintelligent, just temporarily flummoxed) who deserves both our sympathy and the girl.


Angela DiMarco invests that sweet-young-thing role with intelligence, especially in her account of how she allowed herself to be courted by Sir Merlin, even as she "knew he was conning me." Naturally, it turns out that little wifey has larger ambitions. DiMarco has the requisite toughness to make her character interesting.


B.D. Freeman displays talent borrowed from his standup comedy when, as a burly fellow full of sadistic glee, he nevertheless pauses to brag about the pride he takes in being a "craftsman."


Whitmore and Bradley love sending up the thriller's conventions. At one point, asked about his origins, Sir Merlin claims that his father "was a cannibal king up the Amazon." It's blatant obfuscation, and the intent is to elicit chuckles as playgoers recall all those whodunit characters with pasts shrouded in mystery.


Yet soon after, the playwrights practically stand up and shout at us to applaud their cleverness. Just look at us upending your expectations, they squeal. Aren't we smart? We'll make fun of the genre whenever we please, and then, when so inclined, we'll take its conventions quite seriously indeed. We have important things to suggest about the borderline between reality and make-believe; no, not really, we're just joshing. Our characters are brilliant; no, they're sophomoric. This is the kind of mood-oscillation that makes shoulders slump and minds think, "No, that's just dumb."


The plot leaps right past some logical gaps. Let's just say that matters unverifiable in the Victorian Age can be easily checked out in the Era of Microsoft, and that disguising is much more readily achieved on radio -- this play originated on the BBC in 1996 -- than onstage.


As for the final twist? Saw it coming. (Producing Artistic Director Robin Stanton produces one remark in her program notes that I construed as a spoiler. Save the program for reading later at home.) Wasn't surprised much at all, though I'm usually the guy sitting in the darkness afterwards, stumped by a plot, needing to have things explained. But this ending? The grand finale to this Sleuth wannabe? Coulda delivered it by carrier pigeon.


Dumb.


Interplayers, meanwhile, is facing a death-threat of its own; in order to satisfy the fire code, the theater needs to raise $3,000 a day, every day through the end of July. Like many people around here, I want them to succeed. Fervently. Especially now, during their crisis, I would like to say, look, this current show is wonderful. I would like to say that The Final Twist demonstrates exactly why we need to hang onto Interplayers as a cultural treasure.


Can't do it. I crave professional theater, and because of all the great shows it has produced over the years, I want it to endure. But The Final Twist -- despite all the good acting in this production -- should be left twisting, finally, in the wind.





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