By John Lyle Belden
On a quiet evening in an empty Broadway theater, a playwright sets up a very special reading of his new drama. It is exactly one year since, on opening night of his latest show, his fiancé died. It appeared to be suicide, but before this night is done, he will reveal who killed her.
This is “Rehearsal for Murder,” a clever early-80s TV movie (by Richard Levinson and William Link) adapted for the stage by D.D. Brooke and presented now by the Belfry Theatre of Hamilton County, directed by Diane Wilson.
Alex Dennison (Kelly Keller) has rented this house for the night, and explains to his young assistant, Sally (Anna E. Blower) what had happened the year before. It was an ill-fated opening night from the start. Monica Welles (Ameetha Widdershins), a B-movie actress seeking fame on the stage, had stirred controversy by missing a preview performance, and an article in that day’s Variety revealed she is secretly engaged to Alex. Still, director Lloyd Andrews (Alex Dantin) and producer Bella Lamb (Kim O’Mara) hope for the best, as Monica shares the stage with promising ingenue Karen Daniels (Olivia Carrier), popular comic Leo Gibbs (Eric Bowman) and handsome lead David Mathews (Gideon Roark).
Opening Night is a hit with the audience, but with the critics – not so much. This puts a damper on the after-party at Monica’s apartment, and as the guests leave, she also sends Alex home. But an hour or so later, she calls him at his apartment, insisting he return – then the phone goes dead. He arrives at her place to find she has apparently jumped from her upper-story window.
Concluding this convenient recap, Alex has Sally set things up, sends stagehand Ernie (Molly Kraus) home, and welcomes a mysterious man (Chris Taylor) who is to stay in the shadows to watch and ensure no one leaves. Then, the “suspects” make their way in for a play reading no one will forget.
Our cast also includes Diane Reed as a caterer; Mason Cordell Hardiman, Tanya Keller, and Richard Wilson as police; and Cindy Duncan as Ms. Santoro, who brings a truck loaded with a special stage set.
Can you guess how Alex knows it’s murder, and who the killer is?
This family-friendly whodunit is one of those shows that is both entertaining to watch and you can tell is fun for the actors to play. Portraying showbiz people, especially when suggesting they killed someone, allows for a lot of interesting scene-chewing but director Wilson and the cast don’t let it go to camp. Kelly Keller keeps a firm hold on proceedings as our host, with each of his cohorts believably portraying their Broadway archetypes. The pages from the reading play out like flashbacks, with Widdershins ghosting in to perform the script’s doomed leading lady.
Kudos to costumers Tanya Keller and Molly Kraus for finding the Barbara Mandrell-style wig for Monica, as well as Sally’s outfit, which helps solidify the ‘80s look. Best-dressed honors, however, go to Variety columnist Meg Jones, though she may be hard to spot.
I’m not good at mysteries, but if you haven’t seen this, it could have you guessing for a while, as well. Regardless, it’s fun to watch it all play out. Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, at Ivy Tech Auditorium in Noblesville. Get tickets and info at thebelfrytheatre.com.