Dunderhead Noir, done with brio2/5/2014
At Ankeny Community Theater, a late rehearsal of the mystery-farce “Death by Chocolate” proved swift, professional and, at times, delightful. Yet I kept wondering whether any company could bloom under the long shadow of Garrison Keillor. Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” regularly features Guy Noir, private detective, bumbling through cases that combine romance, violence and sheer Dada. The same recipe is brewing in “Death by Chocolate.” The playwright, Craig Sodaro, has made the spoof his métier (he does vampires and zombies, too), and he doesn’t hesitate to name his own detective Noir — Nick Noir.
In Ankeny, Bob Fry didn’t duck the comparison. His gumshoe even appropriated the voice of Keillor’s, a throaty Brooklynese. He never took off his fedora or trench coat (costumes generally hit the right note, in particular the fake beard and the gypsy outfit) and used his head well, giving it a bulldog thrust. Fry’s last show was the Terrace Hill “Christmas Carol,” in which he played Scrooge. In “Chocolate,” even in one of the final run-throughs, he was still working into this very different role. Most of Noir’s punch-lines depend on him failing to notice the obvious, and those require just the right dunderhead snap.
The real crime-buster, naturally, turns out to be his Gal Friday, Selma. Played by Jolene Gentzler, someone else who’s appeared on several local stages, she gave Sodaro’s fluff its sparkle. When speaking with Nick, she, too, sounded like Noo Yawk, but she came up with something different for each costume change. Toward the end, she switched off impressively between her office voice and a Russo-Gypsy fantasy. On top of that, she wielded her index finger in a way that it could’ve been a registered weapon. The play’s program revealed that Gentzler’s starting her own company with an intriguing name: Incoherent Theater.
“Death by Chocolate,” to be sure, whips up a froth of complications, with all manner of batty schemes and identities dropping like baggy pants. Throughout, Doug Moon’s direction keeps his 10 players effectively dispersed. The coffeehouse set proves serviceable: tables and counter, back riser and railing, exits left and right. Nick’s spotlight moments, while the rest of the cast freezes, generally deliver a bit of numbskull fun, and the music is a clever selection of TV themes such as “Mission Impossible.” Someone worked out a good way to dispose of the corpse, too.
Long and short, “Death By Chocolate” is sure to offer a rewarding night of community work. It hardly sets a challenge, but it’s far less of an insult than the average evening watching TV. The company’s brio and effectiveness clearly has a lot to do with longtime dedication. This is Ankeny’s 32nd year, and for most of those years they’ve stayed in the same theater and mounted no less than six performances, always including one musical and one children’s show. Didn’t Garrison Keillor and his crew start out with something like this? CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.