Dead on Arrival 

Top Hat's latest production is more of a training exercise than a satisfying play

Top Hat Theatre Club is still a new endeavor, but it's run by an experienced theater professional and has already involved enough capable local talent that its current show ought to be much better than it is.

I saw Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage, adapted for the stage by Moie Charles and Barbara Toy, on opening night two weekends ago. The next day, I heard secondhand that some cast members had feared just a couple of days before that they wouldn't be ready to open. Well, they got through it without any mishaps, but it was still a far-from-satisfying presentation. Bear in mind that by now, more of the actors may have hit their stride, but I don't see how the least-experienced members of the ensemble could have made enough progress to deliver a more-satisfying performance.

James Mitchell Gooden runs the theater; he has directed this production, and plays a major role on stage. Gooden is not directly the problem, except insofar as he may be stretching himself too thin, and unwisely mounting shows too big to be supported by the available talent pool. He's trying to build an ensemble, but he hasn't yet recruited enough seasoned actors to populate a 13-character play, and he shouldn't be charging full admission for us to observe his training program.

Murder at the Vicarage is a Miss Marple mystery, something I'd known only by reputation, and so it was a delightful surprise to see that Miss Marple, played to a T by Elizabeth Gooden, James' wife, is a provincial fussbudget and busybody with a gently condescending attitude toward her rivals. Flawed characters are much more interesting and unpredictable, and this is what helps Murder at the Vicarage transcend the formulas of the cozy whodunit.

The story takes place in 1949; as you can guess from the title, it's set at a vicarage, and somebody gets murdered there. James Mitchell Gooden plays the vicar in his familiar befuddled-Englishman mode, which he always does quite well. Newcomer Elizabeth Hull is a steady and attractive presence as his young wife; Tami Sutton makes a good impression as the local minx, and Maria Fletcher is suitably sour as an unfortunately extraneous character. But that's not enough to carry the show.

Bruce Bieszki, who ought to know what he's doing, didn't seem at all involved in his role as the police inspector on opening night (perhaps he'd taken his character's name, Slack, to heart). Most of the other actors aren't ready for critical scrutiny, except for Paul Hammack as one of the murder suspects; he was good until his character was called upon to lie, at which point he indulged in a phony, melodramatic parody of James Mitchell Gooden.

This surely was the doing of Gooden himself, in his capacity as director. And it exemplified Gooden's sin here, beyond the casting problems: He mocks his material, but only intermittently. Gooden knows that it's hard to take a script like this seriously anymore, but he should either try to play it straight and work on atmosphere and character detail, or go all the way and turn it into a consistent parody. Instead, Gooden has the characters indulge in periodic, stagey double-takes and devises other ways of winking at the audience without giving the production a consistent tone. The man has been corrupted by his years at Gaslight Theatre.

Top Hat opened over the summer; it's already done better shows than this, and things are bound to improve in the near future--Gooden's one-man A Pickwick Christmas, scheduled for a short December run, has a track record and is sure to be worthwhile. But Murder at the Vicarage hardly suggests what the theater is capable of. Perhaps Gooden should scale back his future shows and consider establishing some sort of theatrical boot camp to groom a new ensemble away from the public eye. In an Agatha Christie mystery, the corpse on stage shouldn't be the production itself.

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