By Dale King
The Delray Beach Playhouse has historically done a very good job producing mystery thrillers.
Wait Until Dark comes to mind immediately. So does Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced, which opened the 2018-2019 season. And folks with a longer theatrical memory may recall Blackout, an original work that premiered at the DBP in 1988 and encored just a few years back.
So, when British novelist/playwright Simon Gray’s entry, Stage Struck, showed up on the venue’s playbill, those intrigued by whodunits were agog with anticipation.
They were not disappointed.
Stage Struck, which will befuddle audiences through Sunday, is a complex piece of literature combining elements that hint of murder, suicide, jealousy, marital infidelity, sadomasochism and clandestine plotting, with an underlying cat-and-mouse competition that throws a shadow of doubt over virtually everything that happens.
The 1979 play that Gray crafted for his friend, actor Alan Bates, is unrelenting in the number of twists, turns and plot devices it offers the audience, which sustains an edge-of-seat tension. It has a very clever plot filled with surprises reminiscent of Ira Levin’s Deathtrap, which, coincidentally, closed a short time ago at the Lake Worth Playhouse.
The show demands much from a four-person cast, and this ensemble delivers.
The play is set in the opulent home of actress Anne O’Neill (Kari Budyk), whose recent success in the English theater upstages her husband, Robert Simon (Michael Coppola), who gave up a floundering vocation behind the footlights to become a stage manager.
Yet his main duty today seems to be tending his wife’s home, bending and scraping to make sure she is well taken care of – an occupation he seems to despise, but he accepts it for the perks it brings – mainly, room and board and the occasional opportunity to partake in brief affairs with young actresses.
While waiting for Anne to return from a show to enjoy his home-cooked pheasant dinner, Robert confesses his displeasure to Herman (Kurt Watkins), another theatrical personage who lives on the property – and has obviously shared his own relationship problems with Robert. Both seem dismal in their respective situations.
When Anne arrives, she flatly refuses Robert’s dinner, preferring a heart-to-heart that deflates her hubby’s potentially pompous ego. Anne said she has consulted with a psychiatrist (Bill Brewer) in a desperate attempt to save their marriage. She says the shrink advised her to leave Robert, whose affairs she frankly admits are well-known to her.
The shocked spouse realizes he has only two alternatives: to be tossed unceremoniously onto the street, or to become a wealthy widower. Problem is, does he have the courage to take on the role of a real-life murderer, even with his knowledge of theatrical gadgetry?
Ultimately, the play develops into a series of tricks and gimmicks. Not all seem related to the plot. But suffice to say the audience is shocked.
What’s striking about Stage Struck is the stage – an elegant English countryside manse with all the appropriate accoutrements. The set designer and carpentry crew deserve their own round of applause.
Cast members are top-notch in capability and delivery, holding the audience in suspense throughout the production which comes in at just under two hours, even with a single intermission.
Coppola continues to establish his stage acumen in Delray, drawing upon his experiences at theaters in New England, Boston and New York. He creates an interesting Robert, a man with a cool demeanor who doesn’t tip his hand. A classy choice for the mystery lead.
The return of longtime DBP actress Kari Budyk makes us recall her capacity for mystery, comedy and everything in between as she portrays Anne as fame-oriented, but rigid, and ultimately, easily frightened.
Brewer, whose talents for acting and singing are both well-honed, is excellent as Widdecombe, the psychiatrist – or is he? He seems truly frightened as Robert threatens him in realistic theatrical style.
Watkins, who has been traveling the nation with his wife, also an actress, picking up stage gigs along the way, gives a solid performance as the adulterous neighbor and Robert’s buddy. Admittedly, the role is not well developed, but he makes the most of it.
Stage Struck is being performed through Sunday, March 28, at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. (Lake Shore Drive), Delray Beach. Tickets may be purchased online at delraybeachplayhouse.com or by calling 561-272-1281.