Trying to Off the Help In a Plodding Farce

Libby the maid (Liz Smith), left, is poised to drink poisoned tea in
Libby the maid (Liz Smith), left, is poised to drink poisoned tea in "Good Help Is So Hard to Murder" with, from center, Elmira (Barbara Gertzog), Miribelle (Susan Kaplan), Delilah (Beth Hughes-Brown) and Florence (Beth Doyle). (By Chip Gertzog)
By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 8, 2007

"Good Help Is So Hard to Murder" is a half-hour's worth of comedy stretched to an hour and 40 minutes, including intermission.

Light on plot, it is mostly a series of sitcom-style, punch-line routines performed on a set that looks as if it was dipped in Pepto-Bismol. Performed by Providence Players in Falls Church, it concludes its run this weekend.

Give them credit, at least, for fresh material. The search for something new led the troupe to an obscure but prolific Houston playwright Pat Cook.

He has an astounding 125 plays listed on his Web site, many of them with "murder" in the title.

Maybe he has a little too much time on his hands, which he could have invested in spending more time on this play, in which two eccentric and aging Southern sisters named Delilah (Beth Hughes-Brown) and Miribelle (Susan Kaplan), are concerned that Libby (Liz Smith), their maid of 12 years, knows too many family secrets: an aunt who is really an uncle, an uncle who is an arsonist -- stuff such as that. So Delilah decides to kill the maid.

But her schemes are interrupted by psychic friend Elmira (Barbara Gertzog), who claims to sense strange things happening in the sisters' pink-hued home with pink furnishings. (They should kill the decorator instead.)

While trying to get Libby to sip poisoned tea, the sisters get caught up in odd occurrences and strange visitors.

Hughes-Brown and Kaplan turn in comic performances that make the material play onstage much better than it is written. Hughes-Brown uses her face to convey a range of funny frustration, amusing annoyance and boffo bewilderment. All the character's inner thoughts, jumbled though they might be, play across her face in a peculiar parade.

Delilah is one of those creatures who seems girlish despite the passage of years, and she remains more or less likable despite her casually homicidal tendencies.

Hughes-Brown is at her best when grousing, such as her complaint about eating a "rolled roast" from which the string was not removed. She growls, "First time I ever ate and flossed at the same time." Bada bing.

The role of Miribelle is a rip-off of Gracie Allen's ditsy persona, her dialogue reminiscent of Allen's routines with George Burns.

For example, when someone says, "I've come to discuss a grave matter," Miribelle replies with wide-eyed literalness, "Oh, do you work at the cemetery now?"

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