In the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's current production of Anybody for Murder?, Christopher Tracy plays Max Harrington, a seemingly mild-mannered gentleman who, through the course of the play, will attempt to murder his wife, convince his girlfriend to assume her identity, attempt to murder his girlfriend, drug potential witnesses, and lie to everyone he comes in contact with. Yet while Max may be a monster, it's pretty apparent that Tracy himself is just about the best friend a moderately funny comedic thriller could ask for.
I should preface by mentioning, as I have repeatedly in these pages, that I'm not the world's biggest fan of slapstick farces - there's something about their structural precision at the expense of character that gives me a headache - and for whatever reason, I don't much care for plays with punctuation in the title. (Oklahoma! Is a rare exception, and even then it'd better be a really good production of Oklahoma!) But Anybody for Murder?, at least as produced by Playcrafters, isn't bad. Directed by Patrick Adamson, the show is gorgeously designed and gamely acted, and in Tracy, it finds a terrifically likable leading man who makes this comedy play better than it probably should.
Tracy looks a bit like Seth Rogen crossed with Martin Freeman of the BBC's The Office, and if he had better material to work with, there's every indication that he could be as funny as either of them. Unfortunately, Anybody for Murder?'s script (by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner) too often finds him playing nothing but varying degrees of anxiety; Max is nearly always in a panic over one of his schemes, or frantically trying to think of new schemes, and the character's constant apoplexy leads to Tracy's facial muscles getting a bit too much of a workout. (You feel exhausted just watching Max's mind racing.)
For what he's asked to do, though, he does it with brio. Tracy has a charming, self-effacing quality and exudes a natural innocence that takes a lot of the sting out of his character's hatefulness; the actor spits out Max's frantic cover-ups with raised eyebrows and a desperate smile, as if even he can't believe the gobbledygook coming out of his mouth. (Tracy, here, is a huggable adulterer-killer.) Plus, in the rare moments when he's given a clever punchline, the actor knocks them out of the park every time. (Removing a body from the scene, Max groans, "How can someone with so much air in her head be so heavy?") Given the circumstances, Tracy performs heroic work.
Happily, he also makes it look like fun work, as does the rest of the Anybody for Murder? ensemble. Kathy Heckman, as a distant relation to Max's wife, and Greg Bouljon, as her henpecked husband, play squabbling marrieds with zeal, Heckman's braying harridan an ideal compliment to Bouljon's milquetoast sap. (Saturday's mostly sold-out, mostly senior audience loved watching these two in action; they cackled every time Heckman's character used their marital vows to guilt her spouse into submission.)
Ben Hopkins, as a hard-drinking mystery writer, performs his purely functional role with agreeable nonchalance - this author has obviously seen it all and done it all - and Pamela Crouch, as Max's wife, heightens her voice to a squeaky soprano and provides an amusingly dizzy dip. I sort of wish the playwrights hadn't fashioned Max's girlfriend as another amusingly dizzy dip, but Jean Lupoli remains focused and sensible in the part; her twitterbrain role doesn't quite mesh with the actress' down-to-earth readings and presence (employed so well in Playcrafters' recent The Trip to Bountiful), yet Lupoli gives it a good stab, and, like Crouch, she's a trouper for having to spend so much of her stage time unconscious.
The crowd appeared to have a ball with this sextet, though I can't help thinking they would've had an even better time if Anybody for Murder? itself weren't both over-written and under-populated. With so few characters on-stage, though, the deceptions and reversals begin to feel redundant early on, and sadly (and strangely), Act II is oftentimes a particular chore to get through; actors are forced into lengthy, tedious monologues about their "perfect" crimes while their co-stars have little to do besides sigh and shake their heads. Adamson does what he can to keep the pacing lively, but he's often stymied by the playwrights' verbiage. (Directorially, Adamson makes only one really obvious gaffe here, when two characters spend three minutes not noticing that the dead body beneath their feet isn't there anymore.)
Although oftentimes tiresome to listen to, at least the show is always a treat to look at; the wood-paneled set, designed by the director and his father, Jeff, is a marvel of rustic coziness, and Jennifer Kingry's lighting effects, especially in the moonlit third scene, have more elegance and mystery than anything in Clemens' and Spooner's script. Still, for a punctuated slapstick, I had a reasonably fine time at Anybody for Murder?; it doesn't quite kill, but it is an occasional kick.
For tickets, call (309) 762-0330.