No Great Mystery

The murder mystery may be the bastard progeny of drama and fiction, and the finest of this breed sure knows how to entertain. At its strongest, a mystery, a thriller, a detective story, a tale of suspense will seize you from the first plot twist and not once let go. If you take your pleasure in book form, you're up reading until 3:00 a.m. with windows and doors double-locked. If you catch a whodunit on television, you're so wiped out you can barely make it to the kitchen to refuel during commercials. (And forget ad-free PBS offerings; you're welded to the TV screen for the duration.) At the movies or live theater, you grip the sides of your seat; you cower; you forget to breathe. Your pulse does not return to normal until the questions of who did it, how they did it, why they did it, and how they will be brought to justice are answered. After all, along with suspense and compellingly wrought good guys and bad guys, resolution is one of the givens of the genre. Life certainly doesn't offer us tidy resolution, and neither does contemporary highbrow drama or fiction.

The 1986 thriller Dangerous Obsession ties up its messy loose ends in a neat little bow at the close of its second act. On-stage at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, it also offers, toward its finish, a couple of unforeseen turns. Yet the revelations and the conclusion deliver, at best, only fleeting twinges of satisfaction, as opposed to the catharsis experienced when watching more intricately plotted and incisively observed work. Blame both the British playwright N.J. Crisp and this production's director David Arisco for this tepid sense of completion. Each, in his own way, commits a cardinal sin: They both opt for predictability over surprise.

Dangerous Obsession appears to have all the necessary ingredients for the brand of thriller known as the English mystery: an isolated house in the country, an enigmatic stranger who arrives unannounced, a hard-drinking wife, a husband with secrets, a death by suspicious accident, a thunderstorm that shuts down the electricity, and a gun. The curtain rises to reveal Sally Driscoll (Kim Cozort) clad only in a bathing suit as she waters the plants in the conservatory of her estate. Suddenly a man appears at her door claiming that he met Sally and her husband Mark (Tom Wahl) at a business conference several months back. Sally remembers the conference but can't remember John Barrett (John Felix) or his wife Jane; then again, Sally's memory has been blurred by vast amounts of alcohol, imbibed before, during, and after the conference. Inviting Barrett inside, she begins to mix the first of many pitchers of martinis that will get her through the coming evening.

Barrett tells Sally that he has come to see Mark on business; since he and his wife met the Driscolls, he continues forlornly, his wife has died. Sally sympathizes, but when Mark arrives he wants nothing to do with Barrett, instructing the visitor to meet him at his office during the week. Barrett has no intention of leaving, as he makes violently clear at the end of act one. In act two he discloses the nature of his business while holding the Driscolls hostage.

Perhaps I've read too many books by English authors such as P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, or seen too many BBC Mystery! episodes featuring Agatha Christie's sleuth Miss Marple or Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse, but the purpose of Barrett's visit screamed "Hello!" at me within moments of his crossing the Driscoll threshold; then it took far too long for my suspicions to be confirmed. Although marked by engaging performances from Felix and Cozort, much of act one is burdened with endless exposition. The suspense meter rises considerably during act two, but only in comparison to its predecessor. The faaade of the Driscolls' perfectly constructed upper-class marriage cracks; once again the rich are exposed as less principled and more miserable than the rest of us. What else is new? And on behalf of the doggedly obsessed, less-privileged Barrett, Felix gets to speak insight-laden lines such as "I'm a little mad, you know. But then again, I think there's a bit of madness in all of us."

Despite being hobbled by a thin script, Cozort and Felix deliver impressive portrayals, although they are forced to labor against uninspired direction and a pallid performance by Wahl. Cozort, a commanding actor who has appeared on many local stages, makes her Actors' Playhouse debut here. Ever the perfect hostess, her Sally walks a line between seductress and therapist, living up to Barrett's description of her as adept at "charming men without making women jealous." The actress is equally convincing whether her character maintains appearances through a drunken haze or succumbs to pressure and momentarily breaks down. In turn, Felix, as Barrett, stealthily moves back and forth between obsequiousness and cunning, throwing in a dollop of tenderness when he speaks about his wife. Wahl, on the other hand, never quite pulls off either his English accent or his depiction of Mark as a cold, controlling, conscienceless businessman. The actor just seems bored.

Playwright Crisp, better known in his native England than in the United States, also writes novels and for television. In the skeletal information I was able to dig up on him, not a single other thriller was mentioned. Given the scant material I found, this doesn't mean he hasn't tried his hand at other mysteries. Since he's not known for writing them, however, I suspect that, with its transparent plotting and its cliched lines about madness, Dangerous Obsession may very well be an unsuccessful attempt to parody the genre or at least to use the form as an excuse to write a morality play about taking responsibility for one's reckless actions. In either case the play's potential for suspense doesn't derive only from its been-there, done-that plot. It's also found in the head games among the principals, whose triangular relationship is marked by deception and betrayal. Unfortunately, director Arisco treats Obsession as a standard-issue, plot-driven thriller, favoring the revelation of ho-hum secrets over psychological tension. The interpretation renders an already obvious script toothless.

Stage Whispers
Disney is doing it this summer, but Christopher Bishop is doing it right now. Although an animated musical version of Victor Hugo's epic nineteenth-century novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame arrives in theaters this June, South Florida audiences can catch a live rendition by Miami composer, lyricist, and author Bishop at the Shores Performing Arts Theater, in Miami Shores, through May 19; Bishop also stars in the title role.

By day a music teacher at West Miami Middle School, Bishop had the initial inkling to turn Hunchback into a musical 23 years ago. Ultimately, however, "it just took its place in the time line of the different projects I was doing," he notes. Those projects included 1492, which Bishop created in celebration of the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish discovery of the New World; that work was named the National Quincentenary Jubilee Commission's official musical theater presentation, with the song "Discovering America" designated as the commission's official theme song. His other musicals include The Formula, which premiered at Florida International University's first original play festival in 1985; the post-Hurricane Andrew show We Will Rebuild; and Magic City, performed for Queen Elizabeth on her visit to Miami in 1991.

While Bishop labored on the production, other composers were mining broadly emotional, lushly romantic nineteenth-century novels for musical theater scenarios, from adaptions of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera to Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to yet another Victor Hugo tome, Les Miserables. None of this daunted Bishop. "The success of Phantom taught me the power of a Gothic approach," he explains. "Les Miserables taught me that the extreme complexity of a 600-page Gothic novel could be reduced to a two-and-a-half-hour entertainment."

Five years ago Bishop finally sat down to tackle Hunchback in earnest. Four years later he had translated into song and dance the story of the deformed Notre Dame cathedral bell ringer Quasimodo who falls in love with the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda. The composer and his wife, Adelle LaBree Bishop, approached Stephen Neal, artistic director of the Shores Theater, with the finished product. "We played him the score," Bishop recalls, "and told him the story. He was enthralled and said, 'Let's do it.'" One year later the theater, with Neal as director, is playing host to what Bishop calls "a Broadway-style production," complete with period costumes and lavish sets.

After years of shaping the show in private, Bishop found that taking Hunchback into production flooded him with fresh ideas. "The marvelous thing about doing a musical," he says, "is the collaborative effort it takes. As you do the specific rewrites, you work with specific actors and try to mold some of the lines and the lyrics of the songs to make them particularly apropos of the personalities being used." For example, Frank O'Neill, who plays the part of Captain Phoebus, has a strong Portuguese speaking accent, so Bishop tailored the role to emphasize O'Neill's singing. Bishop also wrote a second song for the character of Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame and Quasimodo's autocratic protector, because, as Bishop puts it, actor Wayne LeGette "is a very capable performer and it was helpful to the play to give him more to do." Bishop also emphasizes Neal's "cinematic" direction, his montagelike approach to staging: "When we're right in the middle of a song, we'll play a scene in the center of the song and then finish it. Then immediately something else is happening on the other side of the stage. The idea is to create a seamlessness."

For further information, call the Shores Performing Arts Theater at 751-0562 or see "Calendar Listings.

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