By Dale King
Delray Beach Playhouse certainly loves a mystery. The venerable showhouse on the shore of Lake Ida opens its 76th season with a production of Villainous Company, a show whose title literally screams that something illicit is afoot.
And it certainly is, as the audience gradually, but, in the end, surely finds out in this 90-minute production played with no intermission.
Randolph DelLago, artistic director at DBP since 1982, helms this Victor L. Cahn thriller from 2015. He taps a couple of Delray Playhouse long-timers — Kari Budyk and Ann Patrice Casale — as well as a newcomer, Laura Howell, to move the suspicious action along in this all-female production.
While Cahn may not top the list of best-known mystery writers, he makes Villainous Company work well, casting the show in a style of his own. He doesn’t load the stage with suspects, but rather works effectively and tensely with a small ensemble. The trio chosen for the Delray production delivers the goods to an audience that deliberately, but certainly moves to the edge of their seats.
This suspenseful play begins with little hint of suspense — except for a heavy rain outside — when Claire (Budyk) returns from an apparently normal shopping trip to a local, but opulent, mall. As she places her packages on the table of her well-appointed apartment, she discovers that she apparently left one of her purchases — an expensive clock — at the store.
As she phones the shopping spot to locate the missing purchase, a woman (Tracy, portrayed by Howell) appears at her door to deliver the package. It is wrapped in blue paper, just as it was when Claire last saw it. While one might expect the woman to leave the package, offer an apology and leave to get home despite the teeming rainfall, she lingers, begins asking questions that become more personal and even asks for a warm drink to fend off the chill of the rain.
What seems at first to be a kind gesture becomes an increasingly ominous interrogation as Tracy takes time to inquire about Claire’s financial status and how she was able to acquire a home filled with expensive trinkets. While Claire seems unsettled by the line of questioning, she allows it to continue.
She might have simply urged her inquisitor to leave, but, for some reason — curiosity, a guilty conscience or just a desire to play cat-and-mouse — she lets the questioning go on.
Tracy makes her way around the room with no concern for courtesy. And her questioning becomes even more intense. Obviously, she knows more than she’s telling. She even reports seeing Claire and her friend, Joanna (Casale), in the store on several occasions, often having lunch. They even enjoyed a repast that very day — one that Claire paid for with a $20 bill and received 41 cents in change.
How did Tracy know?
Only those who stay for the finale know what is truly afoot.
Cahn packs a lot of dialogue into the show, and that makes all the difference. There’s no need for footwork when the spoken word carries the show. Each member of the cast fully develops her role, so the overall package falls together with nary a hitch.
Budyk, recalled for her entertaining role in last season’s finale, Same Time, Next Year, must have a penchant for mysteries. Her first role at DPB was in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. And she has excelled in all genres since then.
Ditto for Casale, another DBP veteran, whose role on stage in Villainous Company is short, but critical and well-executed. She’s schooled in mystery plays, having written, directed and produced many, and acted at DBP, Lake Worth Playhouse and the Maltz, among others.
Howell’s appearance is her first at Delray Playhouse. She manages a difficult role with finesse — and does well not to overplay the part.
The backstage crew also deserves credit for the elegant set. One wall is a large shadowbox with knickknacks of obvious worth set into the cubbyholes. The other is overshadowed by a bar. In between are furnishings of obvious value. Master carpenter Jeff Davis, scenic designer/scenic artist Cindi Taylor and carpenters Jason Stern, Sarah Rayburn and Kevin Cruz deserve a hand for crafting one of DBP’s most eye-catching accommodations.
VILLAINOUS COMPANY plays through Dec. 18 at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th St. in Delray Beach. Tickets and can be purchased online at delraybeachplayhouse.com, or by phone at 561-272-1281.