Murder, Money, Lust and More Murder. ‘What Ghosts Around Comes Around’, at the Roy Arias Studios

Thomas Burns Scully / CriticA dead man, a lusty maid, an aging butler, a lying lawyer, conniving relatives and a billion dollar fortune. What could go wrong? Well, everything. That’s sort of the point of a farce.

Looking at the continued success of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” on Broadway, it can safely said that the classical ‘murder farce’ is enjoying a renaissance of vogue as of late. It makes a lot of sense, in a way, given the public consciousness. In the post-recession, post-occupy world we now live in, there’s something cathartic about watching rich, well-to-do people humorously killing one over their inheritance. Add in to that the consistent popularity of the “Who-Dunnit” a la Agatha Christie (The world’s best-selling author of all time), and the recent resurgence of figures like Sherlock Holmes in to mainstream popular culture, it’s fair to say that modern theatre-goers are up for a bit of fun and murder. That is where ‘What Ghosts Around Comes Around” comes in.

Larry Hassman has penned “Ghosts” for the Midtown Short Play Festival. Directed by Bill Koch, it tells a fairly straightforward murder mystery in which the ghost of a dead millionaire called Simon (played by Hassman) leads the audience through the reading of his will and the sordid, backstabbing dealings of his potential heirs and house-staff. As his lawyer (Patrick Christiano) and his relatives (Arnold Rodriguez and Jenny D. Green) connive to take his fortune for themselves (against his final wishes), he manipulates his maid/mistress (Emelia Brawn) and butler (Dwight Carter) to bring about a final end that he sees as fit.

The writing is an unashamed homage to Christie and her genre-fellows. Perhaps with a hint of ‘Blithe Spirit’ thrown in. The plot sloshes forward quite merrily from twist to twist, never quite two steps ahead of the audience, but never quite two steps behind either. It’s a play that’s very easy to sit and watch. You emerge from the theatre at the end of its thirty minutes with a bemused smile on your face. The effect is similar to that of a mid-season episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’: laughs and smiles and not a whole lot of serious consequence. But then that’s what makes a face a farce, so we’ll call a spade a digging implement and let sleeping dogs be bygones.

The cast are a colorful bunch. Hassman twinkles under an LED lit umbrella, and minces around the stage manipulating the action. Dwight Carter has possibly the single most interesting face I have ever seen on an actor. Arnold Rodriguez struts and frets moodily as the nephew of the deceased, and Patrick Christiano looks spookily like Andy Warhol while he lawyers about the stage. The standouts from the show are the ladies of the cast, Emelia Brawn and Jenny D. Green. Brawn’s role of Rosemary the maid/seductress calls for a pretty face, which she delivers naturally. But with the incisiveness of a well-honed stage actor Brawn creates a quiet malevolence and gritty underbelly that elevates her performance beyond caricature. She gives the character a rich inner life, all the while never letting the audience forget that they are watching a comedy. Jenny D. Green brings an Emma Thompson-esque quality to proceedings as Simon’s Sister-in-Law. Again, infusing a role that could easily be a dreary cut out from a mystery novella with life beyond what would reasonably be expected. Add to that razor-sharp comic-timing and her performance makes you want to slap anyone who still insists that women aren’t funny.

So overall, an enjoyable romp of a play. Silly characters, some fine acting and a lot of murder. Little criticisms like the obvious cheapness of the stage props don’t seem to matter too much when weighed against the rest of the show’s merits. If I was to be completely honest, I might have preferred a bit more Wildean wit in the dialogue, rather than the more American jokey humor that prevails. But as I said earlier, let’s a call a spade a digging implement and use it to hide the bodies. “Ghosts” is worth a look. A little ray of fun in a little theatre in a festival full of little plays.

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