What I learned. . .

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Blake Robison, the Artistic Director at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has been a good and generous friend since we first met, offering me productions at two other theatres he has led: the Clarence Brown Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee and the Roundhouse Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. When he was appointed AD at the Playhouse, I thought it was a logical and perfect assignment in the trajectory of his career, and, of course, I hoped his appointment would lead to an offer to a direct at a regional company at which I’d been eager to direct for some time. Ed Stern, the previous artistic leader at Cincinnati Playhouse had offered me two different assignments late in his tenure there, but I’d been unable to accept them due to prior commitments. One thing you learn as a free-lancer is to have patience, faith, and gentle persistence: eventually things will work out. Your job is about continuing to do the work (and to do it well), to keep in touch without being a constant nuisance (that’s the hard part), to nurture your professional relationships, and to trust to time.

I was delighted when Blake offered me Murder for Two, simply because I wanted to work at the Playhouse and support his tenure and vision as Artistic Director. I’m always up for a new adventure, and though I’d passed through Cincinnati a number of times, seen work at the Playhouse and visited friends working there, I didn’t know the city well and was eager to make its acquaintance. As for the script itself . . . well, in all honesty, I was less enthused by it than I was by the opportunity to come to Cincinnati. It felt thin and “jokey” to me, which Murder for Two definitely is. But as always with these sorts of assignments, surface appearances can be deceptive, and I was quickly humbled to discover how expertly structured the piece is, how challenging it is to direct, and what a complete and total blast working on it would prove to be.

I was blessed with my cast of two: “the Erics” as we called them: Eric Shorey and Eric VanTielen, who were gifted and accomplished pianists in addition to being gifted and accomplished actor-singer-dancers. They also happened to be engaged to each other, which made our collaboration all the more meaningful and fun. I’m a believer that giving people who like each other – who may even be partnered or married -- is a good thing . . . as long as you’re not weakening the fabric of a play or a production through what is clearly a kind and compassionate overture. In the case of Murder for Two, it was clear we made absolutely the right decision.

Eric VanTielen proved the perfect hapless, endearing, dogged foil as Detective Marcus to Eric Shorey’s lightning-fast, high energy versatility inhabiting each and every one of The Suspects. And “Shorey”’s dance training paid off in unexpected but totally logical ways as he executed the necessary transformations from one character to the next – sometimes in the middle of a sentence -- all the more so when it came to portraying Barette, the former ballerina and Dahlia Whitney, the murder victim’s widow and frustrated former star of the stage.

We started rehearsals each day with time at the piano with Musical Director and piano coach Steven Goers, and I relied on the actors to tell me what they felt they needed: an hour of practice? 90 minutes? review of musical numbers only? . . . this was definitely a situation in which it was crucial to let the cast have a strong voice and vote in determining the daily rehearsal call. Five hours? Six hours? A full eight? And none of our regularly scheduled hours reflected time the Erics were putting in on their own, returning to the rehearsal hall in the evening to practice or taking advantage of the portable keyboard the Playhouse had provided in their housing.

My job, as it so often is, turned out to be about clarity. Murder for Two is a piece in which zany antics and a fast pace can leave an audience in the dust, baffled and scratching their heads. So making sure transitions were clear was key to the production’s success, while also keeping things as simple and clean as possible. Less really can be more, especially with a piece in which “more” can be exceedingly tempting.

I had a wonderful design team, all but one of them old friends and collaborators: Bill Clarke, who has a wicked wit that proved ideal for Murder for Two as it had on our first collaboration (Noises Off at Milwaukee Rep); Tracy Dorman, with whom I hadn’t worked since we collaborated on The Miracle Worker, my first assignment at Syracuse Stage; my can’t-do-it-without-you Lighting Designer, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; and the “newbie” (for me), Jason Sebastian, our Sound Designer, who worked hand in hand with Steve Goers to get the sound balance right in the intimate but acoustically challenging Shelterhouse Theatre. I was also blessed to be welcomed to the Playhouse and expertly guided through the process by Jen Morrow, one of the company’s well-established Stage Managers, and by a staff and crew that was supportive and far more likely to say “yes” than to find a reason to say “no.”

As with Noises Off, Forever Plaid, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged, Murder for Two’s intent is to entertain. But it’s a virtuosic piece, requiring dazzlingly skilled work from its actors and, I think, a keen guiding eye and sensibility from its director and design team. Judging from audience response, attendance, and reviews, I’d say we succeeded. But also judging from the immense satisfaction and pleasure I derived from my first assignment at the Playhouse, my time with Murder for Two was a welcome, surprising, and an immense success – entirely worth the patience, trust, and persistence.

Murder for Two

Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park

May, 2018

“Director Paul Mason Barnes is careful not to let the high energy of the production fatigue the audience. Barnes allows the actors to take breaks from the play’s chaotic, manic pitch to have softer moments that, while still very silly and thus true to the play’s overall intent, nevertheless offer respite from that comic onslaught. He keeps Murder for Two from going over the top.

     Jackie Mulay