‘Rehearsal for Murder’ at Reston Community Players

Whodunit?

That’s the question asked in Reston Community Players’ latest production Rehearsal for Murder. Producer Jay Stein says he, “can almost guarantee that whatever your theory is, it will be wrong.”

Getting the facts (Matthew Wise and Ian Brown). Photo by Traci J.Brooks Photography.
Matthew Wise, Ian Brown, and  Alex Dennison. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Alright Mr. Producer Man. Game On. I’ve read every Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot book and watched every episode of Monk and Murder She Wrote. I’m up to the task.

The play opens with a man walking into a darkened theater, looking around, then taking a gun out of his briefcase and putting it into his pocket. This is Alex Dennison (Ian Brown), a successful Broadway playwright and the protagonist of the story. One year earlier, just hours after opening night of his newest play, the show’s movie star leading lady Monica Wells (Kathy Ohlhaber) commits suicide. Alex and Monica were in love and engaged to be married. Heartbroken, Alex is now bringing together key players from that tragic night to prove it was not suicide but something much more nefarious.

In the following moments, we meet the people from the ill-fated show: Lloyd Andrews (Jay Stein), the show’s nebbish director; Karen Daniels (Christine Carter), the understudy to the leading lady, Leo Gibbs (Wilson Paine), an actor and comedian, who once dated Karen; David Mathews (Kevin Walker), the show’s self-absorbed leading man; and Bella Lamb (Joan Susan Zeigler), the show’s producer. Each one has come to the theater in hopes of being chosen to participate in the playwright’s newest work.

What follows is a classic murder mystery in the sense that there are a number of plot twists, turns, and surprises. Less classic, is the inclusion of humor that is infused throughout the show. I thought for sure I knew the identity of the murderer at three different points in the show. I was wrong all three times. So much for channeling Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher.

One of the things in the production that works really well is how the story unfolds. We see the events from one year ago in flashbacks interspersed with the contemporary story line. I’m not usually a fan of flashbacks, but authors Richard Levinson and William Link, Director Jessie Roberts, and the actors are successful in executing the approach.

Roberts is effective in keeping our focus on the primary action despite a stage that is often filled with many actors. There is a lot of “comings and goings” and actors move on and off stage, but I never found it distracting.

The ensemble cast works well together. While many of the actors are new to the Reston Community Theatre, they feel like they’ve known each other for quite some time. They are effective in moving between the personality of their character from a year earlier to the current. Christine Carter, as the young ingénue to the now confident, is especially strong in expressing the changes in her character. The script gives each character at least one moment in the spotlight and they make the most of it. Zeigler, as the director, ably straddles the line between eccentric and over-the-top caricature.

So much of the show depends on the actor playing the playwright. He is on stage throughout the entire show and his motivation and emotions drive the show. While Ian Brown had the brooding disposition of one who has experienced tragedy. I wish he would have equally expressed the joy that comes from love or the connection with the one he loves as well. Brown is a natural on stage but I wanted a more believable connection between him and Ohlhaber.

The director says this is not only a murder mystery but also a love story. I would have liked to see that intensified. The show is fun as a whodunit, but would have even more remarkable if it worked better on multiple levels.

There are a number of additional roles including Sally Bean, Alex’s new assistant and fresh to the Big Apple; Ernie, the theater’s janitor; Loretta, the stage manager; Lieutenant McElroy, the officer investigating the death; police officers at the scene of the suicide; and Mr. Santoro, a furniture mover. Matt Cederholm, Heather Miska, Carol Watson, Matthew Wise, Wayne Jacques, and Steve Palkovitz fill these role with great aplomb. Palkovitz as the moving man makes the most of just a few lines as does Cedderholm as the janitor.

The stage play by D.D. Brooke is adapted from a 1982 murder mystery TV written by Richard Levinson and William Link. They bring strong “whodunit” credentials to the story, having created, written, and produced more than 16 television series including Columbo, Mannix, McCloud, and Murder She Wrote. One reviewer called the film a “Thinking Man’s murder mystery.”

The Understudy (Christine Carter), the Producer (Joan Susan Zeigler), and the Playwright (Alex Dennison). Photo by Traci J Brooks Studios.
The Understudy (Christine Carter), the Producer (Joan Susan Zeigler), and the Playwright (Alex Dennison). Photo by Traci J Brooks Studios.

The all-volunteer Reston Community Players has gathered a skilled crew and production staff. The sound effects (Sound Designer Revathi Murthy; Sound Operators Karen Nelson and Amy Narron), especially in the first act, were complex and done well, not overpowering dialogue and action. Costume Designer Judy Whelihan offered costumes that helped to define personalities. Ohlhaber’s long red backless dress cemented our sense of Wells as a movie star.

Rehearsal for Murder is an entertaining evening, especially for those who are challenged by mysteries and puzzles. So whodunit? The murderer is… I won’t spoil it for you. You’ll have to come to the show to find out.

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

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Rehearsal for Murder plays through January 31, 2015, at Reston Community Players performing at CenterStage at the Reston Community Center – 2310 Colts Neck Road, in Reston, VA. For tickets, call the Tickets call the CenterStage box office at (703) 476-4500 x 3, or purchase them online.

CenterStage is handicap accessible and offers listening devices for the hearing impaired.

LINKS
Whodunit? Reston Community Players Offers a Heady Mix of Backstage Suspects in Thrilling ‘Rehearsal for Murder’ Playing January 16-31, 2015 by Diane Jackson Schnoor.

Unusual Suspects: Meet the Cast of Reston Community Players’ Upcoming ‘Rehearsal for Murder’ by Diane Jackson Schnoor.

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