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Suspension of Suspense
By Kathy Ceceri

By Ken Ludwig, directed by Steve Fletcher
Curtain Call Theatre, through April 9

In real life, the actor William Gillette was an early interpreter of Sherlock Holmes, whose popularity allowed him to build a “castle” in Connecticut with the profits of his work. In Postmortem, Gillette is himself involved in a mystery involving his former leading lady and the cast of his latest production. Penned by the author of Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, Postmortem has its share of twists and turns, but it’s neither as funny as Ludwig’s other work nor as tightly constructed as other examples of the genre like Sleuth or Deathtrap. What the show has going for it are a great performance by Victor L. Cahn as Gillette, and a talented ensemble that knows how to play to type: the ingenue, the second banana, the vamp. Add to that sets, lighting and costumes that perfectly capture the Prohibition-era milieu, and some scenes that will scare the bejesus out of you, and you’ve got a whodunit that makes up for what it lacks in substance with an awful lot of style.

Ludwig borrows many of the conventions of the murder mystery from masters like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. Gillette, who’s portrayed Holmes for so many years he’s taken on some of his signature character’s trademarks, has invited the members of his company to spend the night at his secluded country estate exactly one year after the sudden death of his beautiful fiancée and co-star Maude Redding, ostensibly to attend a nearby party the next night for the legendary Sarah Bernhardt. His guests include his new leading lady May (Kathryn Lange); Leo, his Watson (Ric Mitchell), whose wife Marion (Linda J. Hughes) is also Gillette’s sister; Bobby (Kris Anderson), a young man attracted to May; and his aunt Lily (Rie Lee).

The group’s discomfort at being brought to the house on the anniversary of Maude’s death is only increased when her best friend, Louise (Joanna Palladino), arrives fresh from a nervous breakdown. But Louise, decked out in a frilly pink number, fur stole and cloche hat, not only manages to outshine even this glamorous crowd, she also takes everyone by surprise by announcing she’s given up acting for a new career. The plot thickens as secrets are revealed and new questions emerge—such as whether Maude’s death was really suicide, as the police declared at the time. But Ludwig throws in so many red herrings that the rhythm of the piece suffers, making it hard for director Steve Fletcher to keep up the suspense for the entire play.

Still, the performances carry the play. Even without a deerstalker cap and curved briar pipe, Cahn is the very picture of the logical detective, from his silk dressing gown to his distinctly Rathbonian profile. (It’s said that the famous film sleuth took many of his touches from the stage actor’s characterization.) Though not enough is made of this link, there are some nice Holmes-like touches, such as Cahn’s haunting violin solo. Palladino crackles as the ditzy Louise, and Lee makes a maternal Lily. The rest of the cast lives up to Curtain Call Theatre’s high standard.

The living room set by Malachi Martin, bedecked with moose horns and crossed swords, and Janet Womachka’s flapper dresses, especially Louise’s red sheath with black beads, rise above what is sometimes seen on this stage, and go a long way toward setting the proper mood. All in all, a decent effort, but the final report on Postmortem is that it promises more than it delivers.

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