Writing Team's 'Rehearsal for Murder' Is Ready For Action With Providence Players

By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 26, 2009

It was curiosity that took me to Falls Church for the Providence Players' production of the mystery "Rehearsal for Murder."

The troupe can usually be counted on to do a creditable job with small-scale dramas, but that's not what made this production so intriguing. What's unusual is who wrote it: the team of Richard Levinson and William Link, who are known primarily as TV writers.

Among their substantial volume of award-winning work for TV and other media, they wrote episodes for one of the most compelling shows of all time, "The Fugitive," in the 1960s, and created and guided the best mystery program ever, "Columbo," in the 1970s and beyond.

But the pair tried the stage only a few times, and those works are rarely seen. In fact, "Rehearsal for Murder" is not even a real example of their theater work. It's an adaptation of a TV movie that Levinson and Link wrote in the early 1980s. But it's still a chance to see how their work holds up in a live performance. "Rehearsal for Murder" turns out to be as finely crafted a whodunit as anything Agatha Christie ever imagined.

The less said about the plot, the better. It's a backstage Broadway tale set in the 1950s, one year to the day after a leading lady mysteriously died. Her fiance, a powerful playwright, tells of the horrible night in a series of inventively staged flashbacks, until the action catches up to the present. At that point, the interesting but rather straightforward plot starts to twist diabolically and lead toward a gripping conclusion via some unusual storytelling.

Levinson and Link leaven the drama with jokey asides and silly aphorisms ("There's no beastliness like show beastliness," one character declares), and rely on the broadest stereotypes of the genre -- a dark and stormy night, a suspicious beverage, an assembling of all of the suspects in one room and a sudden blackout. Still, the old formula works its magic one more time.

Director Chip Gertzog has taken the meat-and-potatoes approach, choosing a straightforward rolling-out of the Levinson-Link blueprint. It's a good choice, as this play is all about their storytelling method.

Holding the show together is Carl Nubile, as grieving playwright Alex Dennison. Nubile takes a long time warming up and tamps down some of the dynamics of the first act, his sonorous voice cloaked in an artificial delivery, like an old-time radio announcer, as he wades through exposition and flashbacks.

But Nubile loosens up as we get back to the "present" and allows the character's emotions to bubble through, and his energy pushes the story along. Nubile is helped by the able work of Leta Hall as Dennison's doomed lover, Monica Welles, and by Patrick David in the supporting role of Broadway grandee David Matthews.

David, handsome and elegant, certainly looks the part of a leading man. But he also provides a piquant sense of mischief that adds a dash of spice to the proceedings.

Caroline Blackwell nicely transforms from ingenue to lioness as young actress Karen Daniels. Other supporting players are fine, but Gertzog seems to have neglected the actors with the smallest roles, with some distractingly poor work the result.

Gertzog and John Coscia took the easy way with set design by not providing any, except for one scene. Much of the action is set in an empty Broadway playhouse, so they put the actors in front of blank curtains. Some "backstage clutter" would add depth to the sense of realism.

Beth Harrison and Robbie Snow have supplied elegant 1950s garments for the ladies, although the men seem to have rummaged around in their closets. Everyone is clad mostly in black and white.

Costumes and the moody, dim lighting from Gertzog and Sarah Mournigham add to a palpable film noir ambiance that's particularly enjoyable. Less a thriller than a macabre mental chess game, "Rehearsal for Murder" becomes completely absorbing, and it's no mystery why the audience enjoys it.

"Rehearsal for Murder" continues through April 4, performed by the Providence Players at the James Lee Community Center Theater, 2855 Annandale Rd., Falls Church. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays with a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call 703-425-6782. For information, visit www.providenceplayers.org.

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