The Elden Street Players are attempting to see if they can make lightning strike twice with their current production of "Thumbs," a new comedy thriller from Rupert Holmes.
A year ago, theatergoers were treated to Elden Street's wonderfully staged presentation of Holmes's rarely seen "Accomplice," an imaginative and highly entertaining brainteaser that twists and turns the conventions of the murder mystery inside out.
So, is it thumbs up or thumbs down for this one? The jury is still deliberating.
The title "Thumbs" refers to the odd penchant of a serial murderer in carrying out his or her crimes. Directed by Todd C. Huse, who also led the team for "Accomplice," this is the tale of a fatal confrontation between a fading, self-absorbed television star and her scheming ex-husband in an isolated mountain cabin. But, as is Holmes's way, that straightforward showdown soon leads to an increasingly convoluted set of circumstances that make you question everyone and everything you see.
"Accomplice" is so challenging to stage and difficult to promote (merely describing the plot gives it away) that theater companies tend to shy away from it. Holmes was apparently so impressed with the Herndon troupe's bravery and subsequent success with "Accomplice" that he took the unusual step of personally granting Elden Street the regional rights to premiere "Thumbs" in the Washington area. The playwright has said he hopes to make his way to the Industrial Strength Theatre to see how the troupe does with this one.
If Holmes does travel to Herndon, he will find a cast that might handle a conventional murder mystery quite well but is not as adept in finding the balance of tongue-in-cheek insouciance and heart-in-the-throat suspense that is called for here. Razor-sharp precision is called for in stretching characterizations to the outer edges of believability for comic effect, while still retaining core credibility, but the two leads tend to fall short, although in opposite ways.
Margaret Bush frequently plays the role of second-rate television star and murder suspect Marta Dunhill too broadly, erasing much of the deliciously droll nuance that Holmes intended the audience to savor.
As small-town sheriff Jane Morton, Dunhill's dramatic foil, Jane E. Petkofsky often goes in the opposite direction, underplaying the role and failing to embrace fully the character's complexities. Initially reminiscent of the down-to-earth sheriff played by Frances McDormand in the Coen brothers' delightfully quirky film "Fargo," this distaff detective soon reveals darker, diabolical layers that are played with matter-of-fact tedium by Petkofsky.
It is only in several later scenes, as Bush and Petkofsky fully engage in the genre's traditional cat-and-mouse game, that Holmes's vision is abundantly realized.
Holmes's wordplay is provocatively entertaining. The acid exchanges between Dunhill and her ex, Freddie Bradshaw (Rick Kenney), sometimes seem to be channeling a 21st-century Oscar Wilde.
"In show business, marriage isn't a commitment," Dunhill snaps. "It's a lease with an option to buy." Bradshaw describes his evil intentions by threatening, "I will kill you by making your life not worth living. And then letting you live it."
Perhaps the audience favorite is Mark Adams, engaging as dim-witted deputy Wilton Dekes, peering out from his silly-looking earflaps and contributing his share of interesting turns. Also notable is Graham Powell, contributing some bare-chested eye candy as Dunhill's boy toy, Todd Monroe.
"Thumbs" is not as masterful as "Accomplice," so Elden Street regulars need to adjust their expectations downward to avoid disappointment. Judged strictly on its own merits, "Thumbs" is okay. It does not have the elevated level of sophistication and intricacy as "Accomplice," and the plot twists that do exist are not revealed as cleverly. But it's enjoyable and could be satisfying with a bit more precision in the lead performances.
"Thumbs" continues through Nov. 13 at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Business Park Dr., Herndon. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 7 p.m. performance this Sunday. A performance is tentatively scheduled for 8 p.m. next Thursday, depending on reservations. For tickets or information, call 703-481-5930. For information, visit www.eldenstreetplayers.org.