As if the pandemic, with its openings and closings and rules changing with each change in the virus, has not done enough to confuse us, the local theatres, now that they are back in action, seem to be making a point of choosing plays that are designed to confuse us further. These plays have characters who are not who they claim to be or change who they are as the plot unfolds. And some of them explore the paradox of the actor in which we encounter both the character in the play and the actor who is playing him or her.
The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves is currently reviving one of these. Rehearsal for Murder has theatre’s doubleness right in its title. We’re at a rehearsal, where we get to know both a character in a play and the actor playing that character, and can we always be sure which is which?
Add another layer. What is being rehearsed is more a cold first reading than a rehearsal, a reading of a new play by a playwright who opened another new play exactly one year ago in the very theatre where he’s holding the reading. His fiancee, a successful movie actor making her first stage appearance and nervous about it, was playing the lead. Reviews were mixed. Depressed, she appeared to have committed suicide, leaping off the balcony of her apartment.
But the playwright is convinced that she would never have committed suicide. She was murdered. So he has assembled those involved in that production to read this script that is studded with scenes featuring a famous movie star having encounters with cast members of a play she and they are rehearsing, each scene revealing a motive each of them would have had for murdering her. The play’s the thing by which the playwright hopes to catch the conscience of the murderer.
He does, though it is the least likely of those at this “rehearsal.” The twists and reversals unfold forever until the final grand twist which, once the murderer is caught, brings the whole facade tumbling down.
Rehearsal for Murder began life in 1982 as a CBS television murder mystery movie, written by Richard Levinson and William Link, experienced writers and producers for such TV series as Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. Playwright D.D. Brooke, who has adapted several other TV shows for the stage, did the same for this one. It’s a good thriller, keeping you guessing, sometimes on edge, and with the appropriate number of Agatha Christie laugh lines. It does not probe as widely and deeply into its multiple philosophical possibilities as some of the other plays we’ve seen lately locally, but it will keep you well occupied.
Webster Groves cast, please forgive me if with all the switching going on I sometimes assign you to the wrong part or to no part at all. Joe Simpson is thoroughly and coolly in command as the playwright. Jackie Smith gives the movie star the necessary glamour as well as the craft of an experienced performer. Lindsay Morrison-Jahr, as the producer, has money worries. Brad Kinzel takes on a British accent and sufficient ego to play the leading man. Stephanie McCreary and Luis Aguilar play a feuding married couple in the cast, and, to add to my confusion, McCreary, who also directed the tight production, filled in for an absent actor the night I was there. Tom Kessinger plays the quick-witted director within the production. David DeRose plays a police lieutenant the playwright has invited to the rehearsal to keep an eye on the suspects, and for other reasons. Amanda Toye deights as the playwright’s secretary. Reese Arconati, Robert Jones, and Jack Connors all make clear distinctions between each of their two parts.
As costume designer, director McCreary helped them make those distinctions. She also designed the props and the sets, which quickly changed from an empty stage to the leading lady’s apartment. Tony Jaskiewcz choreographed fights, Debbie Love designed lights, and Daniel Johnson designed the sound.
Rehearsal for Murder plots a complex and clever tale, if it doesn’t make as much of some of some of its possibilities as it might have. The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves does well by it.
Photo by Robert Stevens