By Carolyn Hayes
Don’t mess with success.
Dave Davies and Wayne David Parker have a good thing going at Tipping Point Theatre; this is the third consecutive season in which the two have been paired, to great acclaim. Yet there’s no evidence of diminishing returns in “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” (by playwrights Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick), a moderately silly vehicle for some supremely silly comedy opportunists. What director James R. Kuhl knows – and what new and returning audiences will appreciate – is that when it comes to humor, this duo always hustles hard.
Here, Davies and Parker are joined by Tipping Point newcomer Cheryl Turski, who steps up as the third point in the play’s instigating love triangle. Sexpot Arlene (Turski), whose perception of herself as a self-actualized, modern 1980s woman couldn’t be farther from her actual puddle-shallow egotism, thinks she deserves more from life than a scandalous fling with passionate lover Mitchell (Parker). But she knows her husband, possessive swindler Paul (Davies), will never grant her a divorce. Thus, the adulterers have come up with the only sensible plan they can think of: Why confront or escape your problems, when you can kill them instead?
Planning and staging are paramount for the first-time murderer, and it can’t hurt to choose the most woebegone, nondescript locale one can think of. Designer Monika Essen answers that call with a hue-perfect conception of a modest motel gone seedy – indistinguishable from any other room of its ilk, right down to that lone, indifferent wall hanging that passes for decor. Chantel Gaidica’s lighting follows suit, giving the single-queen room a dun and dismal pallor that makes its gaudy-mod furnishings look hopelessly dated, even in this early-’80s setting. Properties by Brandon Newton exhaustively chronicle all the amenities of a rented room that can’t be nailed down, as well as more than a few elements of danger. And all the while, sound designer Amanda Ewing and costumer Suzanne Young skip a gleeful path down memory lane, spurring a steady stream of giddy-cringe realizations that we once listened to this…oh, heavens, while looking like that.
So the stage is set, quite literally, for outlandish excesses and larger-than-life actions and reactions. And the cast is right in step; in fact, all three come out of the gate at full gallop. The physical comedy is on par with the best of farces, from facial acrobatics to full-body efforts. Yet the show draws from the mental well just as often, leaning into subversions and turning the tables of power when it’s least expected.
Each performer shines when his or her back is against the wall, and although the work serves the story being told in three rapid-fire acts, it’s even more captivating to see how the actors push themselves and each other to develop every scrap of comic potential. The art of improvisation has a mandate about “finding the game of the scene”; it’s a skill that can translate to scripted fare, and here the gameplay is all-consuming – and exquisite.
Kuhl and company seem to understand that the production’s true strength is in its performances; this is evident from the earliest beats, when hilarious background business completely tramples the words being spoken. In fact, the play more often than not advances of its own power, not just in spite of the words on the page, but almost in defiance of them. But the trade-offs are worth it: Who has time to fret about whether these characters show any justifiable attraction for each other, when one of them is giving the other an impromptu dental exam to rolling laughter?
As it stands, “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” provides ample comic fodder for a production that sets its sights markedly higher. For a group of performers that could probably reduce an audience to pants-wetting just by reading the phone book, this goofy story and madcap script tee up loads of potential for feats of humorous ingenuity. Viewers who haven’t been privy to Davies and Parker’s previous outings owe it to themselves to catch this rarefied display of comic mastery, although they’ll likely find themselves competing for tickets with returning fans, who know full well what they’d be missing.
‘Murder at the Howard Johnson’s’
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville. Thursday-Sunday through March 9, plus Wednesday, Feb. 19. 2 hours; with 2 intermissions. $27-32. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com