It’s tough to guess whether the model used in Agatha Christie’s The BBC Murders could serve as a template for other plays combining 21st century techology with nostalgia-infused theater art. But this much is true: The four linked Christie plays at Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse prove to be a delight for lovers of mysteries, radio drama and solidly entertaining theater.
Written and directed by Judith Walcutt and Firesign Theatre cofounder David Ossman, presented by veteran South Florida producer Zev Buffman, The BBC Murders offers up the ingenious, prolific Christie (Melinda Peterson) as the production’s narrator. She fills us in a bit on how she came to write mysteries in general or a short play in particular, then the members of the show’s versatile acting troupe present four half-hour, comedy-infused mysteries: Butter in a Lordly Dish, Three Blind Mice, Personal Call and Yellow Iris.
What makes the style of The BBC Murders unusual is that the plays are presented as though they’re being performed for a radio audience. Oh, there’s a scaffold-style set and artful lighting (by Brian Sidney Bembridge), terrific period costumes and wigs (by Amy Cianci), original music by Rupert Holmes and Robert Marsanyi, and extraordinary sound design by Steven Wiese (with special effects by Randy Thom and Dennis Leonard).
But off to one side, playing roles as vital as any of those performed by actors, are Foley artists Tony Brewer and Lauren Allison, the live sound effects wizards who supply everything from the creak of an opening door to the clink of a china teacup on its saucer. Their synchronization with actors who are miming the pouring of a stiff drink, skiing to an isolated manor house or delivering a fatal blow is dead on.
The performers work at period microphones, holding scripts but often abandoning them for memorized staged sequences. The entire cast is strong, and as with any repertory company, it’s fun to watch the actors change characters and accents from play to play.
Gary Sandy, a regular on the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati, is the leading man — or leading cad — in three of the four plays. In Butter in a Lordly Dish, he’s Sir Luke Enderby, a philandering and smug prosecutor. In Personal Call, he’s James Brent, a widower about to take his pretty new wife on a train trip to Paris for their honeymoon. In Yellow Iris, he’s Barton Russell, a brash Texan who has chosen a nightclub — how odd — to commemorate the anniversary of his wife’s apparent suicide. Whatever Sandy may be like in his offstage life, he has a real knack for playing self-important bad guys.
If The BBC Murders has a leading lady (in addition to the genial Peterson as Christie, of course) and most valuable player, Amy Walker gets both titles. Brilliant at accents and looking a bit like a younger Kristin Scott Thomas, Walker morphs from a mysterious seductress in Butter to a frightened guest house owner in Three Blind Mice to the imperiled new wife of Personal Call to a Peruvian (no, really) movie star and torch singer in Yellow Iris. In all four plays, she’s terrific.
The company’s other performers — Firesign cofounder Phil Proctor, Richard Fish (whose deep, rich voice is simply glorious), Cassie Post, Lesley Staples, Elizabeth Dimon, Angie Radosh, Christopher Swan, Orson Ossman and Alex Jorth — all prove adroit at delivering their multiple characters.
The theater-radio amalgam The BBC Murders might spark a little trend. Or it might just be a one-off. Whatever its fate, the production is perfect Parker fare.