Watching “Clue” at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, you will likely be too busy laughing to worry about whodunit.
“Clue” is technically a murder mystery. But it bears more or less the same relationship to typical Agatha Christie-style mysteries as “Blazing Saddles” does to classic Hollywood westerns, or “Airplane!” does to disaster movies. It takes the well-worn conventions of a genre and builds a nonstop barrage of silly jokes on top of them. Some of these jokes inspire more groans than laugh, but enough of them work to make “Clue” a fun, breezily entertaining night at the theater.
“Clue” is based on the 1985 movie, which was based, in turn, on the popular board game. The movie, despite a star-filled cast (Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Tim Curry etc.), was not a box-office hit, but according to Wikipedia, “later developed a considerable cult following.” There also has been an interactive Clue musical, Clue books, a Clue TV mini-series and a Clue comic book series, and another Clue film is reportedly in the works.
Sandy Rustin adapted this one-act, 80-minute version from Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 screenplay, with Hunter Foster and Eric Price credited with “additional material.” The action follows the basic structure of the movie, with some significant variations.
Six characters, invited to a mansion for mysterious reasons, are greeted by Wadsworth the butler (Mark Price). They include the ditzy Mrs. Peacock (Kathy Fitzgerald), the dim Col. Mustard (John Treacy Egan), the lecherous Prof. Plum (Michael Kostroff), the haughty Mrs. White (Donna English), the sassy Miss Scarlet (Sarah Hollis) and the straitlaced Mr. Green (Alex Mandell).
Yes, they have pretty much one personality trait each, just like they are each assigned a color. And after they meet each other and Wadsworth, plus the mansion’s maid (Isabelle McCalla) and cook (Hazel Anne Raymundo), they are given boxes that each contain a potential murder weapon: A revolver, a dagger, a piece of rope and so on.
The mansion’s owner, Mr. Boddy (Graham Stevens), does not show his face at first. But we soon learn that the guests have something in common: He is blackmailing each of them.
This odd dinner party has barely started when murder is committed. Everyone starts moving around the different rooms of the impressively grand mansion (designed by Lee Savage), investigating clues, encountering more violence, fending off a cop who shows up (Kolby Kindle) and more. It’s mayhem — a good kind of mayhem that hypnotizes an audience with its speed and craziness.
Despite its lightness, and the cartoonishness of its characters, “Clue” is, I think, a play that needs a great deal of precision to get right. There are lots of moving parts, with the stage often crowded with characters who are trying to figure each other out, just like the audience is doing. The action moves quickly from one room of the mansion to another, with much of the humor coming from sound and lighting effects that have to be perfectly timed. A bit of sloppiness and the illusion is ruined.
But the cast and crew nailed everything, the night I went. Price was particularly impressive delivering a long monologue, late in the play, in which Wadsworth summarizes everything that has happened before. Among the other actors, Fitzgerald got the biggest laughs by going furthest over the top evoking Mrs. Peacock’s eccentricities.
In another play, that might not be best strategy. But going over the top is just the kind of approach that this material dictates.
“Clue” runs at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Feb. 20. Visit papermill.org.
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