"Unusual form, a mystery. You take the audience by the hand, and you lead them -- in the wrong direction. They trust you, and you betray them. All in the name of surprise."
The lead character in "Rehearsal for Murder," now playing at Lamb's Players Theatre, lays it all out for the viewer: You will be led astray. Expect the unexpected. Finger the most unlikely suspect.
But somehow, the surprise ending will still come as a surprise. That's partly because the wrap-up is somewhat lacking in plausibility.
No matter. "Rehearsal for Murder" scores high on other elements of a good whodunit: a rich plot filled with suspense and tension, well-drawn characters, a few red herrings. Plus, Lamb's talented ensemble skillfully brings the story to life.
Playwright Alex Dennison (Robert Smyth) has written a new play, a mystery. Only the scenes are uncomfortably similar to the real-life events of a year earlier, when his actress fiancee Monica Welles (real-life wife Deborah Gilmour Smyth) committed suicide following the lukewarm opening night of a ho hum show. But Alex doesn't believe it was a suicide. There was her strange behavior, the late-night phone call, the still-warm teapot.
So on the one-year anniversary of Monica's death, Alex reassembles the cast of that fateful play for a reading of his new work in a Hamlet-esque scheme to catch the conscience of a killer.
In scene after scene, Alex lays out a motive for each of the people gathered -- the leading man (David Cochran Heath) and director (Doren Elias), whose sexual advances Monica rejected; the producer (K.B. Mercer), who stood to gain monetarily; and fellow actors and ex-spouses (Colleen Kollar and Jon Lorenz) looking to advance their careers.
The "readings" are well staged under Robert Smyth's direction. On a completely blank set, assisted by Nate Parde's moody and evocative lighting, Monica materializes from the ether to play herself in scenes that become flashbacks.
The eerily empty black stage lends to the sense of mystery and tension, in addition to simply being an interesting novelty. (How often do we get to see the backstage doors open up to expose the parking lot out back?) Gilmour Smyth's melodic yet ominous original piano music also helps set the mood.
Gilmour Smyth is elegant and haunting as the beloved yet aging screen turned stage actress, while Robert Smyth plays Alex with a brooding understatement of impenetrable resolve. Mercer is especially fun as the smart and haughty producer, and Kollar and Lorenz get most of the laughs with their acerbic verbal catfights.
Jeanne Reith's costumes are, as usual, spot on -- high couture for the wealthy producer, black pinstripes topped by a fedora for the smarmy director, a tweedy suit for the sober playwright.
"Rehearsal for Murder" started out as a television movie written by Richard Levinson and William Link, the same duo that brought us "Columbo" and "Murder, She Wrote." It was adapted for the stage by D.D. Brooke.
It first aired in 1982 as a television movie, and some plot anachronisms unavoidably stick out now that we've all become pseudo-forensic scientist armchair detectives courtesy of shows like "CSI" and "Law & Order." And though the drama has been updated with cell phones, there is one egregious use of the word "rad," which is, like, totally grody to the max.
Still, Lamb's cast does such a fine job that the few bumps along the way don't detract much from a wildly fun ride.
PROGRAM: "Rehearsal for Murder"
Organization: Lamb's Players Theatre
Dates: Through May 21
Show times: Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
Location: Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado