Curtain Call: Killer Sex Comedy

BTE swings ’70s style in polished production

As the political activism and self-discovery of the 1960s segued into increasingly decadent and selfish behavior in the ‘70s, the term “me generation” became popular among pop sociologists. Still, theatregoers weren’t ready for Murder at the Howard Johnson’s when it debuted in 1979 reasons Richie Cannaday, director of Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble’s new production of the comedy.
Set over the course of a year in the late ‘70s, the physical comedy finds a revolving love triangle in which killing the obstructive party of the moment is remoreselssly deemed the best course of action. Whether it was the character’s selfishness, cynicism or apathy to blame, 1979 audiences were not impressed. The Broadway debut of Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark’s twist on the bedroom farce closed after 10 previews and only four performances.
Audiences at Sunday’s matinee at the Alvina Krause Theatre were decidely more enthusiastic.
“In 2012, HoJo plays like an homage to an era, and the despicable nature of the characters reminds me more of the Seinfeld gang than the Odd Couple,” Cannaday concludes in his director’s notes.
Ensemble veterans Elizabeth Dowd, James Goode, and Gerald Stropnicky have been working together for 33 years and their comfort with each other is a considerable bonus in this small-cast show.
Used car salesman “Honest” Paul Miller (Stropnicky) may be middle class but he gives his wife Arlene (Dowd) everything money can buy.
That doesn’t stop her heart from falling victim to the stylishly mustachioed dentist Marshall Lovell (Goode), for whom sex and love are one and the same. A femme fatale of sorts, even at age 48, Arlene whines that after reading too many books, she has grown beyond her lackluster husband.
“If only he didn’t love me so much,” she laments while going over the murder plan with Lovell in the motor lodge room they’ve rented to do the deed.
“Is it because I have no sense of humor?” the jilted husband asks as the lovers plead with him to give Arlene a divorce so they don’t have to kill him. He later blames “women’s magazines” for his wife’s dissatisfaction.
The play’s fabulous disco era costumes are like a fourth character ­— Lovell’s tennis outfit at the top of Act Two earns a lingering laugh. The unit set is decorated in retro aqua and orange geometric fabrics; a large bed centered between two lamps is centered between two sliding windows. As the actions shifts from one room to another on a higher floor of the Howard Johnson’s, a looming neon sign “outside” is lowered to indicate the shift. Scene changes are carried out by an attention-demanding maid bopping about to “My Sharona” while she dusts, changes holiday decorations and finally watches an indeterminate television program for what feels like a excessive length of time.
The comedy does what it’s meant to do ­— entertains. Laughter is consistent throughout the show and restlessness never has a chance to set in. Yet, the performances are so well-rehearsed, it almost feels too polished. A ridiculous complaint, perhaps, but in a comedy of this sort, I’d like to feel a more spontaneous rush of adrenaline, the illusion that anything might happen, with no time to note that it’s all been carefully choreographed.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s will play the Alvina Krause Theatre, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. through March 25. Tickets are $25 or $20 for seniors and $11 for students. Call 784-8181 for reservations or visit www.bte.org.