Manic fun under the orange roof: The Dio’s ‘Murder at the Howard Johnson’s’
PINCKNEY, Mich.–If Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite had been written by Mel Brooks and staged as a very special episode of The Carol Burnett Show, you would have The Dio’s latest Murder at the Howard Johnson’s. And if you are a child of the 70s, as I am, that is pretty high praise. The Dio, as always, has put on an extremely capable and professional production. What they do so well is provide crowd-pleasing entertainment, exceptionally produced and beautifully performed.
The piece is, as the title suggests, a series of vignettes around a possible murder (or murders) at a Howard Johnson’s Hotel. From Wikipedia: “Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is a 1979 play in two acts by American playwrights Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. The production officially opened on Broadway at the John Golden Theatre after ten preview performances on May 17, 1979; closing just three days later after only four more performances.” Surprisingly – and this could be why the play closed so quickly in its original incarnation – it is more prescient and self-aware than most similar farces of its era of the 70s’ overall garishness and often-absurd attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
It helps in great part that The Dio’s crackerjack production team – director Steve DeBruyne, assistant director Carrie Sayer, set/lighting/sound designer Matt Tomich, costume designer Norma Polk, and props master Eileen Obradovich – understand to an almost superhuman level the high wire act of balancing arch comedy and full-on camp without devolving into a soapy, self-indulgent mess. They really spin magic out of smartly utilized resources and raw talent at The Dio – that is what theatre is all about.
The production is an affectionate love letter to a blessedly bygone era. The color scheme is that of the classic hotel, and the dinner theatre food offerings before hand even more so. Why-oh-why American decor abandoned that lovely, preternatural turquoise and orange hue combo I’ll never know.
For those unaware, The Dio always offers an immersive evening of entertainment, beginning with dinner and dessert before the performances. If you have a Midwestern palate like mine, and your idea of haute cuisine was shaped table-side at restaurants like Ho-Jo’s with a soundtrack of Hall and Oates and Air Supply in the background, the buffet of vintage delights will leave you chuckling and satisfied by its array of guilty pleasures. I’m vegetarian, and The Dio is always great about accommodating dietary needs, but even I was charmed by the clam strips on the menu. I remember thinking as a child that clam strips were the most exotic items I could order in any restaurant. The Dio has even replicated the vintage style of a Howard Johnson’s menu in the show’s program. No detail is left unturned.
The show is a hoot from start to finish, and, as the run progresses, the tight three-person ensemble will likely get looser and funnier, knowing when and where to milk the audience’s shock-and-awe over the spiraling shenanigans. Those audience reactions will be a key component to the success of this production. Not unlike Harvey Korman and Tim Conway legendarily “breaking” in the middle of a sketch because they had so surprised one another with a comic bit, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s will rise and fall by the affection the performers have for each other’s work. The audience on Saturday night was vocal and enthused, and the cast responded accordingly. The production finds an easy 70s groove with solid pacing, clever musical cues, and the aforementioned pitch perfect set and costume design. I had my covetous eye on one plaid jacket in particular.
Dale Dobson, as cuckolded used car salesman Paul Miller, nearly runs away with the show. Imagine if Gene Wilder and Charles Nelson Reilly had a baby. No really. Imagine it. There is no place that brave Dobson won’t go – physically and emotionally – and his performance is a manic and escalating tour-de-force. Dobson’s character development pulls just to the right side of becoming an unhinged cartoon, the actor weaving in authentic notes of heartbreak and confusion over the realization that his beloved wife (“I bought her FIVE watches!”) has taken up with a hunky bald dentist who has an affinity for, yes, plaid jackets.
Joshua Brown as dandy dentist Mitchell Lovell is nicely understated (somebody has to be amidst the day-glo chaos), nailing the oddball swaggering machismo of the era, wherein sexual infidelities were seen as heroic accomplishments and men who had been weaned on too many cowboy movies thought a highly compensated career in, say, dentistry made them a modern day Wyatt Earp. The “Me Decade” had no idea #metoo was on its way. Brown has a gift for scoring laughs in the quiet moments, a glowering sidelong glance here, a well-placed sigh there. He is the Lyle Waggoner of this enterprise.
Molly Cunningham knocks it out of the park as Arlene Miller whose indiscretions and flights of murderous fancy launch the narrative into action. She has a knack for the throwaway line, scoring as many laughs with a tossed off zinger as she does the screwball physical comedy demanded by the production. Cunningham also does yeoman’s work keeping the slower moments moving along, setting up the piece’s increasingly hyperbolic tomfoolery.
The show is broken into three scenes (there is no intermission) placed across three holidays (Christmas, Independence Day, and New Year’s), all set in a Howard Johnson’s hotel room, as the trio plots and fails miserably to kill one of their own – a different victim each holiday – triggered by the passions Arlene sparks in the knuckle-headed men in her life. The play’s structure is a tad clunky, forcing the audience to become precoccupied with the passage of time – both in terms of the narrative’s chronology and the play’s length. Interestingly, this is the only element of the piece that reads as dated. However, the Dio’s production makes it all work so well that this becomes a minor criticism.
Murder at the Howard Johnson’s is great fun. Ibsen, it ain’t. Gloriously goofy, it is. Grab a bottle of wine, enjoy the buffet of carbs, and sit back for a night of relentlessly hysterical comedy. Under the orange roof, you won’t be disappointed.