Reviewed by Katherine Karlson
BLAST’s season starter gives new meaning and plenty of laughs to the theatrical trope of “bedroom farce.”
Murder at the Howard Johnson’s opened last night (Sept. 16) at the Cider Mill Stage in Endicott. The broad comedy by Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark takes place in 1978 in one of the quintessential rooms of the motel chain, festooned in the signature HoJo colors of bright orange and blazing turquoise. Yes, that’s a rotary phone on the bedside table.
The three main characters often express themselves in ’70s psychobabble, but director Kate Murray expertly guides her talented actors through the frantic pace and funny one-liners. The result: an enjoyable romp that won’t hurt your brain with any heavy lifting.
The three points of this zany love triangle are the dissatisfied ditz, Arlene Miller (Hillori Schenker); her used car salesman spouse, Paul Miller (John Montgomery), and her lover, the dentist with too much libido, Mitchell Lovell (Mark Durkee). It’s a challenge to do slapstick comedy well. Seasoned actors know there has to be that touch of tragedy to make it work, and these three give their respective characters just enough serious touches to make the buffoonery shine on stage.
Without giving away too much of the plot, the planned whacking of each character in his or her turn, drives the action that takes place on major holidays in a year. The audience learns how Arlene believes Paul has kept her from happiness: “I used to be innocent; then I started reading.” Schenker has a vivid face and lets her body gestures express everything from frustration to girlish glee with delightful animation.
Durkee as the dental Lothario never misses an opportunity to preen in front of a mirror, and his swaggering moves are a joy to watch and inwardly mock. He rocks a pink ruffled shirt even as he schleps homemade gallows into the room to dispatch one of the others in the second act.
The much-put-upon cuckold, Paul, constantly moans “everyone is out to shaft me” from the counter clerk who messes up a take-out chicken order to a defecating pigeon. Montgomery has “nebbish” written all over him but brings a feisty courage to his role. The energy among the three never flags and carries the story through to a not-unexpected conclusion.
Although dated, both in its décor and philosophy, the play is still a gold mine of guffaws, because it revels in the eternal push-and-pulls of love, lust and liquidation. As Arlene says, “Life is so complicated for those of us who think.” Go for the fried clam strip,s and stay for the hilarity at the Howard Johnson’s.
IF YOU GO: Murder at the Howard Johnson’s will run today, Sunday (Sept. 17-18) and Sept. 23-25 at the Cider Mill Stage, 2 Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. All shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tickets at $25 may be purchased by visiting the website, cidermillstage.com, or by calling the box office at 607-321-9630.