Dial M for Mundane

Rupert Holmes's silly genre exercise isn't much of a mystery.

There are two kinds of jokes in Rupert Holmes's Thumbs: good ones and bad ones. I'm going to spoil one of each for you, but you'll recoup the loss if you decide to see the play. Thumbs is short on many things, but not on jokes.

Here's a good one: A man, discovering his vicious ex-wife hanging out in his living room, suggests it would be appropriate for the two of them to enjoy a bottle of Beaujolais nouveau. "Like you, it's best with a little chill about it," he explains. "And like me, it should be drunk as soon as possible."

Barbara Sloan (left), ax-wielding maniac, and Angie Radosh.
Barbara Sloan (left), ax-wielding maniac, and Angie Radosh.

Details

Thumbs: Written by Rupert Holmes. Directed by David Arisco. Starring Allan Baker, Zolan Henderson, Angie Radosh, Barbara Sloan, and Wayne Steadman. Through May 25. Actors' Playhouse at The Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293, www.actorsplayhouse.org

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Ha!

Here's a bad one: That same man is asking his ex-wife, a successful actress, how she landed the role of an angel on a hit TV show. "I screwed the executive producer," she says. His retort: "In the missionary position, I assume."

Er.

Dodgy repartee aside, Holmes is a man of many talents. He's been a hit singer/songwriter and rock star ("Escape [The Piña Colada Song]"), a producer of other hit singer/songwriters and rock stars (Judy Collins, Sparx), a double Tony Award-winning creator of musicals (Drood), and an acclaimed writer of plays (Good Night, Gracie). Because he has succeeded so wildly and widely, you figure Holmes is some kind of genius. But if you wanna engage in a little crackerjack psychology, you might also figure that his artistic restlessness is a sign of incurable dilettantism.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Where would we be without genius dilettantes such as Le Corbusier and Noel Coward? But there is a special problem that curses dilettantes more than other species of artists: When they go genre-hopping, they often create genre pieces. You wouldn't think this would happen to Holmes, at least not in a comedic whodunit such as Thumbs. He's usually good at those.

Not this time. In Thumbs, Holmes cleaves to the most obvious tropes and signifiers of his forebears and adds nothing new or even exceptional or smart. This is more odious in the comedic whodunit than in many other genres; a mostly-okay romance will still make you go "aw," a mostly-okay thriller will still make you jump, a mostly-okay musical will still make you hum. But a mostly-okay comedic whodunit leaves you indifferent to who done it, and then all that's keeping you in your seat is the expectation of laughs.

In Thumbs, what laughs there are have more to do with good acting and directing than with Holmes's ugly, lumpen script, which has to do with the above-mentioned actress visiting her ex in his little house in Vermont, also the site of two grizzly murders that transpired several months earlier. The killer removed the victims' thumbs, thus earning the moniker "Tom Thumb." Soon there is another murder, and in come a sheriff and her daft assistant. Then the actress's boyfriend shows up. You wonder who the killer is, if anybody is who they say are, and what improbable plot twist will next arise to screw mightily with your mind.

I shan't spoil the surprise, but I'll tell you this: The plot twists are so improbable that they come off like a spoof — like the Alec Guinness/Truman Capote/Nancy Walker riff at the end of Neil Simon's Murder by Death. Thing is, the way Thumbs is handled, you don't always know if it's supposed to be a spoof.

The story is a wash — overexplained and self-indulgently twisty. The jokes are a wash too — a 50/50 mixed bag of laughs and groans that averages out to a perfect zero. That leaves us with the performers, two of whom are awesome.

Angie Radosh gives a terrific and oddly androgynous performance as the dour but good-natured Sheriff Jane Morton. She seems to be incarnating the kind of old-school movie cop who tucks his thumbs under his belt and says things like: "Just doing my duty, ma'am." This is a masculine persona, but on Radosh it doesn't look the least bit unnatural. And her cat-and-mouse game with the killer is fun to watch; her folksy joviality when she knows she has cornered her quarry is both delightful and frightening.

Thumbs' other saving grace is Wayne Steadman, playing Morton's none-too-bright sidekick, Milton Dekes. He sounds like a younger Mr. Magoo and seems approximately as sensible. In fact the single most compelling moment of the show might be when Dekes is alone onstage, attempting to secure a crime scene and hopelessly confusing himself with the yellow tape he's trying to stick over a door. It's a brilliant bit of physical comedy.

But is it worth the price of admission? Probably not. Dull as it is to say, Thumbs is probably destined to appeal solely to folks who either love Rupert Holmes or crave zany whodunits. It's a genre piece for genre lovers. Everybody else will just sit there, ticking off the bad jokes and looking forward to the good ones, wondering idly if any of it has a point.

 
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