From his 1962 debut with Pajama Tops at the Coconut Grove Playhouse until 1988 when he handed off his theatrical ventures to the company that became Broadway Across America, Zev Buffman was the dominant force in South Florida theater, not to mention a producer of Broadway shows and touring theater fare.
The soft-spoken, hard-driving producer, a mixture of savvy arts businessman and P.T. Barnum, left the world where he made his name and fortune. He moved on to ventures in the world of sports (he was part of the Miami Heat’s founding group), amphitheaters and a mystery writers’ festival in Owensboro, Ky.
Yet now, at 82, the Israel-born Buffman has enthusiastically come back to theater. Through Feb. 3 at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse, he is presenting Agatha Christie’s The BBC Murders, a collection of four short plays first performed on BBC radio in the 1930s and ’40s.
Buffman hopes that the unusual hybrid art form that is The BBC Murders will launch an ongoing relationship involving Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, which he heads; the restored Capital Theatre in Clearwater; and the Parker, where his 21 years as the theater’s producer included Elizabeth Taylor’s 1981 stage debut in The Little Foxes.
“I think we can build comedies, dramas and mysteries for our own use [in Clearwater], then send them to the Parker and, God willing, other theaters,” Buffman says. “There are so many 1,000-seat theaters around the country that aren’t being utilized.”
The plays of The BBC Murders are Butter in a Lordly Dish, Three Blind Mice, Personal Call and Yellow Iris. Buffman tracked down the yellowed, tattered BBC manuscripts in London when he was running the RiverPark Center in Kentucky. He got permission from the Christie estate to have them adapted for the stage, which was done by writer-directors Judith Walcutt and David Ossman, the later a founder of the counterculture comedy troupe Firesign Theatre. Phil Proctor, another Firesign founder, is in the cast.
The BBC Murders experiments with form. There are two plays in each act, presented with actors frequently working at old-fashioned microphones, as though they were performing in a radio studio. Scenic projections, costumes, props and special effects help establish the world of each play, but state-of-the-art surround sound developed by designers from George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch is a critical element of the production.
“It may begin like radio and have the DNA of radio, but that melts away, and it becomes so cinematic,” Buffman says.
Linking the plays together is actress Melinda Peterson. She narrates with words from Christie’s autobiography and portrays the prolific mystery writer, who died in 1976 at the age of 85. The author, who created famous detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple, remains the world’s best-selling novelist, and her play The Mousetrap (based on Three Blind Mice) has been running in London since 1952.
Peterson has done plenty of research on Christie, getting her inspiration for the writer’s physicality from a photo taken of the novelist when she was on an archeological dig with second husband Max Mallowan. She has listened to recordings of Christie’s voice, including a CD of Christie dictating her autobiography, but modified the sound for The BBC Murders.
“Her voice was high and plummy, but there was not a lot of orchestration to it,” Peterson says. “If you did it that way, no one would come back for the second act.”
Peterson loves what she calls a “hybrid” sort of play.
“The audience will see us as we perform,” she says. “But if they close their eyes, they’ll hear what the BBC audience heard.”
Former WKRP in Cincinnati star Gary Sandy appears in three of the four plays and says Christie’s macabre, exciting writing in the BBC pieces has made him want to read more of her work. He says that lately, Buffman has pushed the cast to take some segments in a more theatrical direction, getting away from the script-in-hand style of radio drama.
“We need a happy medium, not just presenting a radio drama but doing it in a theatrical form. If we get it right, I think everyone will think, ‘Well, that was just terrific,’” he says.
Sandy, who has known Buffman since the producer was presenting subscription seasons at the Parker, Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana Playhouse and Miami Beach’s Jackie Gleason Theater, reconnected with him in Kentucky, where Sandy has a farm.
“Zev is one of the best producers and nicest guys I’ve ever met,” he says.
Buffman, who gave the cast a Parker Playhouse tour that proved emotionally intense for him, says he’s excited about reentering a world that could, perhaps, take him back to Broadway.
“I’m a Peter Pan. But there comes a time when you think more deeply about what you want to do and how you want to spend your time,” he says. “I learned that theater is my home.”