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HoJo Mojo

Northside Theatre Company sneaks up on 'Murder at the Howard Johnson's' from an odd angle

By Marianne Messina

JUDGING BY THE TITLE, Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick's Murder at the Howard Johnson's promises to be fairly predictable: quick-paced staging and the knee-jerk humor of a sitcom that never saw prime time. Go in with that expectation, and Northside Theatre's production directed by Richard T. Orlando will throw you. You'll want faster pacing, crisper characters and busier grappling.

But this play is quirky, starting with a wife and her lover who plan to kill her husband because he "loves her too much" to divorce her, and whose murder plans include after-murder dancing. A typical exchange is: "Jump." "C'mon, Paul, there's cement down there." "Good, it'll break your fall."

It takes an eye for quirk to squeeze the best juice from this script. Only after wife Arlene (Janet Strangis) thinks murder might be a little "selfish," do the lovers decide to try talking the husband into divorce. "At least if he says no," reasons Arlene's lover (James Bigelow Jr.), "we can have a clear conscience." A line like that could be delivered in so many awful ways, and yet Bigelow manages to avoid them all, seeming (incredibly) as if he really has a conscience that would really be satisfied with this rationale.

As a woman who leaves a loving husband for a philanderer and whose reasoning often sounds retro-feminist, Janet Strangis gives us an Arlene who is neither fatuous nor preachy. Instead, Strangis keeps us guessing. Is she a warm person? A bimbo? Is she trying to precipitate a fairy tale: husband learns romance; lover says, "I'll change for you"?

Jerry Hitchcock's performance, as "schmucko" husband Paul Miller, is an acquired taste. When (lovingly alliterated) lover Mitchell Lovell tells him that Arlene needs "warmth, touching, feeling," Paul gives his characteristic response, "She'll learn to live with less." Here is someone who could be played as swaggering mercenary or unfeeling pragmatist, but whom Hitchcock plays with the flat, sometimes halting delivery of a bad actor. He couldn't be more vacant as he says, "I'm stunned. I'm really stunned." What to make of this performance? Even Paul's "struggle" as Mitchell tries to tie him up is rather passive.

But all the visual humor has the same halting, unhurried feel, even a "scramble" (more a wiggle dance) to hide under the bed. And as the play goes on, Paul's befuddled flatness somehow feels right. It bolsters his schmuckiness. In fact, the more you can suspend expectation, the funnier you'll find this production's odd dysrhythmia between action, words and characters—which makes the show the unique delight that it is.

When Arlene falls in love with a self-help guru promoting the motto "me first," she appears her most classy, not her most silly. Costume designer Sharon Sanchez Eakes has taken the character from a purple teddy to a "whore disguise"—black feather boa, black wig with chocks of burgundy—to a tasteful up-scooped coif and mauve chiffon dress accented by the dazzling diamond jewelry of a woman at the top of her pyramid.

The Northside production doesn't allow serious themes around selfishness, personal growth and women's social roles to crowd the abundant, freewheeling humor. Murder at the Howard Johnson's is a confection for sure, but Orlando has taken easy formula and filled it with surprises, even for a sense of humor that doesn't run with the pack.

Murder at the Howard Johnson's, a Northside Theatre Company production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through Oct. 30 at the Northside Theatre, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.7820)

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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