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“Murder at the Howard Johnson’s” Makes Death Hilarious

The University Theatre at N.C. State's cast for Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick's 1979 comedy, "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," includes (from left) Chris Burner, Flynt Burton, and Michael Brocki (photo by Ron Foreman)

The University Theatre at N.C. State’s stellar cast for Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick’s uproarious and utterly charming 1979 comedy, “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s,” includes (from left) Chris Burner, Flynt Burton, and Michael Brocki (photo by Ron Foreman)

“People like us don’t kill people. We’re much too middle class for that,” says Paul Miller (Michael Brocki) shortly after being hit with the doubly-bad news that his wife, Arlene (Flynt Burton), is having an affair with their dentist, Mitchell (Chris Burner), and that the two plan to murder him if he won’t agree to a divorce. This statement—which turns out to be quite true—is uttered in the fast-moving first act of University Theatre’s production of “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s,” directed by Rachel Klem as part of TheatreFest 2013.

Paul’s attempted murder isn’t the only one featured in this uproarious and utterly charming little comedy. No, audience members get to watch these three characters as they struggle with their love triangle and try to off one another for over a year. While the story calls for a production that’s rather gimmicky, a strong cast with great chemistry and proven comedy chops keeps things from veering too far into the ridiculous zone. That’s not to say that there’s not some ridiculousness involved—picture two grown men running around and trying to push one another off a hotel ledge—but this cast manages to make every moment honestly funny instead of hokey-funny.

Brocki is perhaps the strongest in the line-up, managing to make dopey-but-sweet Paul utterly likeable and providing some great belly laughs thanks to his earnest, straight-faced delivery and easy physicality. Burton certainly holds her own among the men with her perfect, overly-dramatic Arlene, and Burner creates a Mitchell who’s equal parts sleazeball and charmer.

While these fine actors deserve most of the credit for bringing their characters to life, Laura J. Parker’s costume design certainly lends a helping hand. The show, which is set in the mid-70s,  provides lots of opportunities for simple sight-gags, something that Parker takes advantage of. Picture garish, plaid pants, a curly afro that’s to die for, and flowy 70s dresses–the costume choices are like something out of the Brady Bunch, but the Brady Bunch this isn’t.

All of the action is set in a seedy Howard Johnson’s, made all-too-real by Jayme Mellema’s true-to-life set. Everything from the mustard-yellow chairs and ugly orange bedding down to the cheap looking ashtrays screams 70s hotel room.

The stellar set, creative costumes, and superb performances combine to create a show that’s wonderfully funny and surprisingly believable. While there are some deeper nuances to the story, Klem prefers to leave this production light and fun, making it a wonderful summer show and only somewhat of a guilty-pleasure.

University Theatre at N.C. State presents MURDER AT THE HOWARD JOHNSON’S at 7:30 p.m. June 7 and 8, 2 p.m. June 9, 12, and 14, 2 and 7:30 p.m. June 16, 7:30 p.m. June 19, and 7:30 p.m. June 22 and 23 in the Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre in Frank Thompson Hall, 2241 Dunn Ave., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607, presented as part of TheatreFest 2013.

TICKETS: $16 ($14 students and seniors), except $5 for NCSU students with ID.

BOX OFFICE: 919-515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=MURD.

SHOW/SERIES: http://ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/index.html.

PRESENTER: http://ncsu.edu/theatre/.

VENUE: http://www.ncsu.edu/arts/thompson/.

MAPS AND DIRECTIONS: http://www.ncsu.edu/arts/mapsanddirections.html.

PARKING: http://www.ncsu.edu/arts/ArtsMap_revJan2011.pdf.

OTHER LINKS:

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s (1979 play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/659/murder-at-the-howard-johnsons (Samuel French, Inc.) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_at_the_Howard_Johnson%27s (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Ron Clark (playwright): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Clark_%28writer%29 (Wikipedia).

Sam Bobrick (playwright): http://www.sambobrick.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Bobrick (Wikipedia).

Rachel Klem (director): https://www.facebook.com/rachel.klem.71 (Facebook page).

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews