“I specialize in murders of a quiet, domestic interest,” Agatha Christie said in a 1956 interview. One would wonder how her mysteries would fare today. While her books continue to be adapted for stage and screen, and her creation, detective Hercule Poirot, continues to capture audiences’ attention, the appeal has become one of romantic nostalgia. Today we have high-tech CSI police procedurals, a revamped Sherlock Holmes (a BBC series titled simply Sherlock), and new shows like Denmark’s The Killing providing dark, slow-burning tales of conspiracy and corruption.
Brave New Productions continues the tradition of putting mystery on stage with their adaptation of Done To Death, written in 1970 by American playwright Fred Carmichael. The play imagines a group of five crime writers who have been unable to keep up with the times and have lost their audience. A new opportunity arises when an American production company brings them all together to have an almighty brainstorming session to conceive of a new murder mystery.
The Olives (Stephanie McKenna and Sean Curley) are a husband and wife crime writing team whose recipe of high society, martini-spilling murders have fallen out of fashion. Mildred Z Maxwell (Emma McQueen), professed master of the logical crime construction “constantly thinking of new ways to kill people,” most closely fits the Christie mould. Brad Benedict (Zachary Brown) is a fresh-faced sensationalist spy writer in the manner of Ian Fleming, and Rodney Duckton (Bryan Libero) is an aging hardboiled detective fiction writer hearkening back to the likes of Raymond Chandler.
At first the writers express mutual admiration, but soon they are soon criticizing and lampooning each other’s work. They imagine parodies of their work in a comedic skewering of their respective sub-genres. As the writers describe plots to each other the stage lighting alters and the audience is presented with multiple vignettes in the style of the respective writers, with hilariously hammed up performances. The stakes are raised, however, when, as all this is playing out, actual murders begin happening. Soon the writers realize that tracking down a culprit is very different from the stories they once wrote.
The tone is one of irreverent tribute, with director McQueen commenting in her notes, “Isn’t it wonderful when a play comes along that reminds us why they’re called plays?” At its best, Done To Death manages to convincingly evoke the genre of mystery fiction: the idea of a plot about the murder of a rich man, played out on stage in the form of the characters’ fantasies, took me back to a childhood of watching Columbo re-runs. Not all the subcategories of mystery are as successfully evoked. The James Bond spoofs feel silly and dated, most of all since James Bond himself continues to be successfully reinvented. Brown plays the writer in an almost childish manner, excited by various ingenious gadgets. By contrast,James Bond creator Ian Fleming actually served as a naval intelligence officer alongside wartime spies.
McKenna as Jessica Olive manages a compelling performance as the high society crime writer energized by the prospect of being caught in a mystery all of their own. When it becomes clear that any one of the writers could be the murderer, she gleefully exclaims, “We’re all still in the running!” Other cast members make a strong effort to match her energy. Angelo Venucci plays the creepy butler Gregory and Kayleigh Choiniere is hysterical ingenue Jane, poking good fun at the tired tropes.
As any fan of murder mysteries will tell you, motive is the most important component to any murder. And it is motive that is the real missing ingredient in this drama. Once the bodies start piling up it becomes clear that it is all a springboard to broadly lampoon the writers’ respective genres. While many of the tropes deserve everything they get and there is much fun to be had, to set up a murder mystery and fail to deliver the satisfactory resolution the convention demands is a cardinal sin. In addition, though the structure of the play easily lends itself to comment on the genre of mystery fiction as a whole, it doesn’t offer more than superficial insight. I expect more than a few audience members will be going home to dig out those old mystery paperbacks, and find a more satisfying ending.
Done to Death runs January 10, 11, 12, 15, 17, and 18 at 8 p.m., at 3680 Jeanne-Mance.