‘Murder at the Howard Johnson’s’ at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater

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Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, written by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, is a laugh-out-loud riot featuring a woman, her husband and her lover hatching hilarious murder schemes in the classic chain hotel in the 1970s.

Skillfully directed by Shawn R. Martin, who also performs in the show, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s displays a love triangle between husband and wife, Paul and Arlene, and Arlene’s lover, the dentist, Dr. Mitchell Lovell, on three separate holiday occasions in the famous hotel chain. Amid the food and frolicking, the characters also attempt to hatch murder plots, with two characters plotting as the murderers and the third character unknowingly becoming the victim. Wife and lover plot to murder her husband, husband and wife plot to murder her lover and, at one point, completely fed up, husband and lover plot to murder the wife!

Jules Happy Rone and Steve Steele. Photo by Adam Blackstock.
Jules Happy Rone and Steve Steele. Photo by Adam Blackstock.

Shawn R. Martin has excellent comedic timing as nerdy dentist and Arlene’s lover, Mitchell. He also displays impeccable diction with many of the show’s rapid fire lines and his deadpan delivery at certain moments was perfectly executed.

Steve Steele is outstanding as husband Paul. His gloomy, sarcastic character is great fun to watch and his one-liners are incredible. Steele’s various sound effects are hilarious when imitating objects or events at certain moments when the character is frustrated. His baseball analogy speech in Act I was wonderful and nearly stopped the show with laughter.

At the center of the men’s hilarious heartbreak is Jules Happy Rone as the obliviously flighty housewife, Arlene. Rone steals the show at several different moments with her phenomenal facial expressions and wonderfully over dramatic moments.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s has a very clever script and premise. The same gags or lines are used repetitively, but every time a gag is repeated, it is in a completely different context and the changes are ridiculously funny. The actors also do a fantastic job providing a stark contrast in the personalities and comedic styles of the three vastly varied characters.

In a small ensemble show, chemistry is obviously important and these three actors have it in spades. Martin and Rone provide excellent chemistry in the opening scene and Rone and Steele have a very sweet rapport. However, the funniest relationship and comes from Martin and Steele as the rivals-turned-friends. The two actors have a phenomenal physical gag at the top of Act II and a scene where the characters are scrambling on the window ledge near the end of Act I, reminiscent of an I Love Lucy-esque bit, is one of the funniest moments in the comedy.

The single set, designed by Jim and Sue Eckel, is a fantastically decorated hotel room, designed with multiple shades of the trademark Howard Johnson’s orange tone. The costumes, designed by Jackie Rebok and Jules Happy Rone, are wonderfully tacky replicas of late 1970’s clothing, complete with festive outfits in specific colors for each holiday occasion.

With a stellar cast, well-written script and phenomenal performances, The Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater’s Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is sure to murder the audience from laughter.

Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

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Murder at the Howard Johnson’s plays through September 13, 2015 at the Washington County Playhouse Dinner Theater and Children’s Theater – 44 North Potomac Street, in Hagerstown, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 739-7469.

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