By John Quinn
“Trent’s Last Case,” the detective novel by E.C. Bentley, was published a century ago. While it has been filmed three times, local playwright John Arden McClure’s adaptation for the stage seems to be the first. The production is at Broadway Onstage this month.
Philip Trent, professional artist and amateur sleuth, is asked by a friend, Burton Cupple (Dan Woitulewicz), to look into the murder of his niece’s husband. Sigsbee Manderson (Jack Abella), while a sober and honest fellow, is also the “Napoleon of Wall Street” and has made countless enemies in his cutthroat career. The May-December marriage between Mabel (Stella Roth) and Manderson is not a happy one. He suspects a secret romance between his wife and his British secretary, John Marlowe (Patrick Sharpe). So – who shot Sigsbee Manderson on the grounds of his estate with John Marlowe’s pistol? Was it Marlow, wanting Mabel for himself? Was it the bride, tired of her cold, suspicious husband? Perhaps it was Manderson’s other secretary, American-born and gun-totin’ Celestine Bunner (Elizabeth Rager)? Or has vengeful Death followed him to his English retreat for wrongs done in America?
Although “Trent’s Last Case” is not a comedy, there is a droll parody in the plot. While a Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot always get their man, we have to wait until late in the second act for the revelation of the miscreant. Philip Trent one-ups the Masters by assembling his evidence and naming the murderer at the first act curtain – and falls in love with Mabel, to boot. Ah, but did our impetuous hero finger the right villain? Act II will tell!
This adaption of “Trent’s Last Case” is pretty straight forward, without subplot or diversions. McClure plays Philip Trent, and like his writing and acting in 2011’s “The Problem of Cell 13,” also with Broadway Onstage, his love for his characters and their genre is obvious. However, the production is not without its pitfalls.
One advantage the play enjoys over the novel is the opportunity to flash back to situations that lead up to the murder – we even get several versions of the actual crime. It is unfortunate that Broadway Onstage’s lighting is not flexible enough to smoothly segue from past to present, and the transitions are jarring. Director Dennis Wickline makes do with what he’s got. As set designer, he portrays several locations without moving the furniture, which does improve the flow.
It is also unfortunate that some of the performers are plagued by rocky readings and flubbed lines. The two ladies fare better than the guys; Rothe and Rager turn out convincing characters. Learning the lines is merely the first step of role preparation. Until the artist can feel as the character feels, and communicate that emotion to his audience his work isn’t done. With luck and a few more weeks living with these characters, magic can happen!
‘Trent’s Last Case’
Broadway Onstage Live Theatre, 21517 Kelly Rd., Eastpointe. Friday-Saturday through Feb. 9. 1 hour, 40 minutes. $16. 586-771-6333. http://www.broadwayonstage.com