Just one day after waking up to the soul-crushing gut punch of the presidential election, I was in a daze of sorrow that I didn’t think even a trip to the theater could assuage.
And yet, Charles Pogue and Larry Drake’s “Whodunnit Darling?” managed to pierce the fog of doom and dread with its rapid-fire witticisms, clever plotting and requisite hijinks of characters who are suspects in a murder at a 1930s dude ranch.
By the time Eric Seale and Marcus Roland had traded a few barbs as detective Damocles Cole and ranch owner Tex McKinney, respectively, laughing felt like coming up for air.
Roland’s Texas-twanged character is one of the evening’s most consistently enjoyable characters. His drawl and demeanor are reminiscent of a spunky George W. Bush, I found myself thinking, though trying to avoid thinking about politics.
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Seale plays an atypical role for himself as the suave detective made more suave in print by his wife’s fictionalized novels of his adventures. Did I say wife? I meant ex-wife, of course, played with gleeful panache by Hayley Williams Feck.
The pair share a playful chemistry and their wry flirtations and knowing banter make it obvious that perhaps “ex” should not appear ahead of their titles as husband and wife. The undercurrent of romance feels palpable, and there is a thread of substance to their love that adds some surprising emotional texture in a few key moments that transcend the genre.
The romantic subplot plays second fiddle, though, to the plot’s drive to find out the killer’s identity. Could it be freewheeling alcoholic and next of kin Tommy Delbert? Tim Hull’s portrayal of the pleasure-seeking inheritor is one of the evening’s most dynamic performances. Hull is one of the area’s most versatile actors, and here he is at the top of his comedic game.
Bradley Ulery delivers a spirited and humorous performance as the town’s hapless sheriff, Moose Lodge, who just might have a motive for murder himself. Anna Poteet deepens the mystery with her character Vera’s sizzling mystique, whose gold-digging ways might also prove a motive; after all, when her rich husband Martin (Dave Dampier) is shot (but not killed), she very nearly freed herself to marry the newly rich Tommy Delbert.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest star was Junie, a real live tiny dog that played Max, Mr. and Mrs. Cole’s dog that they had shared before their divorce. Junie elicited a bevy of laughs and will no doubt go on to do great things in future canine roles.
Director Julieanne Pogue clearly allows her cast to play, and it was evident that they were doing just that on opening night. The 1930s dude ranch, the stylized slang of the period, the puns, the fanciful and natural blocking — all of these are toys for the cast to play with, and the result is a mirthful warmth that tickles your funny bone.
I was reminded again of politics when one of the characters utters the line, “You wonder about the mentality of the voting public when you see elected officials like that.”
The audience laughed hard at that. A little too hard. As if there was some fresh pain behind that laughter. And there was. It felt good to be feeling it together.
What: Studio Players production of the comedy by Charles Edward Pogue and Larry Drake
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 18, 19, 25, 26; 2:30 p.m. Nov. 20, 27
Where: Studio Players Carriage House Theatre, 154 W. Bell Ct.
Tickets: $21 adults, $11 students