The marquee outside the Bowie Playhouse is only slightly exaggerating in promising You’ll Die Laughing at 2nd Star Productions’ season opener, Bloody Murder. This is far and away the best non-musical I’ve ever seen under this roof. A creative new show from a new playwright, it’s just the thing for audiences who like to think outside the box and appreciate brainteasers, puns and Brit-bashing. It’s an English murder mystery cocktail with a twist: Think two shots Agatha Christie with an Alfred Hitchcock mixer and a Monty Python chaser. Every time you think you’ve figured it out, something ironic and darkly humorous happens to prove you wrong.
Picture the drawing room of a 1930s country estate fitted with fine art, antiques and a suit of armor. Set and costumes, both by Jane B. Wingard, are stunning. Here the dowager Lady Somerset’s (Heather Tuckfield) guests adjourn for after-dinner drinks and entertainment.
Major Quimby (Gene Valendo) is the quintessential Boer vet who bores everyone with his endless war stories. Devon Tremaine (Tim Sayles) is an aging actor with a certain Clark Gable sparkle and an ever-present tumbler of scotch. Add a nefarious and maniacal nephew (Zak Zeeks); the mysterious Mr. Woo (Joe Biddle), who bears a striking resemblance to Charlie Chan; an exotic Countess of unknown origin (Heidi Toll); and the requisite ingénue, Emma Reese (Vivian Wingard). Jane (Rosalee Daelemans) is the silent maid in modest grey.
Conversation sputters like the fire in the hearth until the lights flicker and a body — the first of many — lands on the Persian rug. Lady Somerset, reluctant to besmirch her reputation with a visit from the police, yanks the telephone cord from the wall. Chief Inspector Phelps (Martin Hayes) nevertheless arrives in short order, drawn like a bloodhound to the scent of foul play. Who summoned him, you may ask? And just why doesn’t the Lady want the police involved?
My lips are sealed, save for the one clue: there’ll be mutiny on the boards. After all, discovery is half the fun in this farce, with caricatures and clichés adding the other half. Listen for literary and pop culture references.
Playwright Ed Sala of the Roanoke Valley was already a successful actor when this idea occurred to him, perhaps as the result of having read too many formulaic scripts. He tweaked the formula, and since its 2009 debut at Akron’s Weathervane Playhouse his show has seen 25 productions.
2nd Star held the curtain for Sala’s arrival on opening night. During intermission, he spoke with enthusiasm of the troupe’s performance and agreed that Zeeks is particularly watchable for the nervous creepiness — reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Renfield character — he brings to his nephew. Another actor played Zeeks like Jim Carrey, Sala noted, by way of comparison.
Mounting an unknown production frees the actors to set the standard, and this fine cast — under the direction of Charles W. Maloney — sets a high bar.
Don’t miss Bloody Murder. It’ll slay you.
Playing Th-Sa thru Sept. 22 at 8pm; Su at 3pm at Bowie Playhouse, 165000 White Marsh Dr., Bowie . $20 with discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.