Review: Clue at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts
By Perry Tannenbaum
Apparently, I didn’t have much of a clue about CLUE, a new comedy by Sandy Rustin based on the 80-year-old board game and its 1985 screen adaptation. I presumed that Matthews Playhouse would be staging the musical version that has periodically skulked around regional and community theatres after ignominiously posting its closing notice a week after it opened Off-Broadway in early December 1997.
Our playbill, listing “Original music composed by Michael Holland,” kept me in the dark a bit longer until the show began without an overture or an opening number. While we waited, we had the chance to fill out a form and predict which of the “usual suspects” would be revealed as the culprit – or culprits – at the end of the show. It’s a pretty simple form since, unlike the board game, we don’t have to sniff out where the murder takes place and which of six lethal weapons is used. Simpler than the movie, too, which was famously released with three different endings.
After directing a nearly sublime Book of Will at Belmont Abbey College back in February, Jill Bloede shows that she and her sure comedy instincts can lift up the utterly ridiculous in Matthews. She and set designer Marty Wolff aren’t going to let us forget that Clue is a board game. With sliding wood panels for walls and cunning little swinging gates for doors, we can see three rooms at a time on each side of the stage simultaneously, with a corridor representing the Boddy Mansion’s hallway completing the symmetry – seven of the nine rooms depicted (even more primitively) by the humble game board’s overhead view.
Flimsy as those thin walls may appear sliding in and out of view, they must be sturdy enough to accommodate the workings of secret panels that either flip their graphics or open and shut widely enough for the comings and goings of arms visibly wielding weapons. If your Clue erudition has stuck with you since childhood, you’ll remember that those weapons are a candlestick, a lead pipe, a monkey wrench, a dagger, a rope, and a revolver.
It’s with the entrance of our prime suspects that the plot of Jonathan Lynn’s screenplay and Rustin’s script, mimicking the film’s plot setup, swerve from the classic simplicities of the Parker Brothers’ game. Each of the six guests who have been invited to the Boddy Mansion is given one of the aliases bestowed on the iconic game pieces. Each now has a colorful – but compromising – back story that he or she is being blackmailed for. Serious enough misdeeds lurk beneath all our guests’ respectable facades for a murder motive, and their sophisticated enough for them to apply for membership among the avatars of more evolved adult board games.
So Colonel Mustard does have a military background, and Mrs. Peacock, a US Senator’s wife, has reason to be prideful. Mr. Green has a gay bent that could be costly as news of the McCarthy un-American hearings, circa 1954, seep through in radio broadcasts, and Miss Scarlet’s flame seems to be fueled by undercover stints as a high-priced madame. Professor Plum was apparently disgraced in another profession before finding refuge in academia, and Mrs. White… why is she dressed in black? Presumably because one or more of her late husbands could be the skeleton in her closet.
Now if you or I were anonymously blackmailing six evildoers with DC connections, you might think twice – or 700 times – before inviting even one of those cash cows for dinner, blowing your cover and, in a faraway secluded manor, endangering your own life. Ah, but the Lynn-Rustin silliness has just begun. Let’s distribute the six iconic murder weapons among the six color-schemed guests! And after all, if six possible murderers are gathered for an evening of killing and sleuthing – and dinner! – why limit the victims to just the ever-ready Mr. Boddy?
The whole Boddy household staff might be available to boost the body count: the maid, the cook, and the butler. Maybe we could liven (or deaden?) things up with a stranded motorist, a snoopy cop, or even a singing telegram girl? Hey, it’s a party!
With Allen Andrews as the suave and mysterious butler Wadsworth greeting mutton-chopped Jeremy Cartee as the pompous Colonel Mustard, the ball gets rolling nicely as the pair let us in on the rules of the game. Andrews as Wadsworth is so slick of a host greeting all of our suspects that he manages, through sheer brass and sliminess, to cast suspicion on himself. Cartee, meanwhile, must vie with longtime local diva Paula Baldwin as Mrs. Peacock for the distinction of being the most arrogant and pretentious of the suspects. Baldwin makes up for lost time by being the most outgoing, neurotic, and loquacious guest.
Clad in a screaming red dress, red hair garishly beribboned, and wrapped in a boa, Vanessa Davis as Miss Scarlet is the polar opposite of the cool Mary Lynn Bain as the semi-funereal Mrs. White. While Davis shoots seductive glances everywhere, Bain seems to be in perpetual mourning.
Yvette Moten’s costume designs are predictably color-coded, but they are not altogether studded with solid hues. While Andrew Pippin as the reserved Mr. Green gets to wear the most stylishly coordinated and urbane ensemble in harboring the deepest secret, Moten allows herself to go fairly wild over Johnny Hohenstein’s outfit as Mr. Plum: a cringeworthy maroon plaid jacket striped with deep purple and sky blue, a weirdly coordinated motley bowtie, and the loudest purple argyle sweater she could find.
Kathleen Cole is most notable for all the costumes – and phony eyebrows – that she wears, changing from the Cook to the Singing Telegram Girl before resurfacing as police backup. That glittery delivery girl outfit would liven any costume ball.
Bloede obviously takes much delight in maneuvering her game pieces. Sometimes they scurry around so swiftly that we lose track of them, and at other times, Wadsworth and staff parade them from room to room with a ceremoniousness that actually does evoke silly avatars moving around the squares of a game board. Yet there wasn’t a single missed beat during all the hectic scene changes at the Saturday matinees, never a missed cue, and never a flubbed line.
We seem to all get nine different rooms with all the back-and-forth of the sliding walls, so efficiently whisked in and out of sight from the wings. But I don’t remember seeing a ballroom, so I’m sure we don’t see more than eight.
Eight is enough.