I've always wanted to say this after seeing a murder mystery. The sister did it! Well, at least she did on Friday night at Sam Bass Community Theatre. But before you start writing nasty letters to me about spoiling the end of a hysterical farce of a murder mystery, just know that "the sister did it" is one of several possible endings of Alan Ayckbourn's It Could be Any One of Us, a witty send-up of the mystery drama that features three possible endings, one of which is decided on stage during a card game. So while the sister did it Friday night, on any other evening the murderer could be someone completely different. And as fun as Ayckbourn's clever gimmick is, that's only part of what makes It Could be Any One of Us so electric and engaging.
The plot here is what you'd expect of a murder mystery. The wicked and less-than-mediocre composer Mortimer Chalke (William Parcher) hates his family, and the feeling is quite mutual. For no reason other than to see his brother Brinton (Jeff Mulligan), his sister Jocelyn (Lynn S. Beaver), her lover Norris (Joseph Burg David), and her teenage daughter Amy (Kelly Hamilton) writhe with pain, Mortimer decides to give the entire Chalke family estate to Wendy Windwood (Linda Myers), a former pupil he hasn't seen in over twenty years. Of course, all of the Chalke clan have motives to dispose of Mortimer, Wendy, or both, and suddenly the two fall victim to a series of bizarre accidents.
Yes, the plot is identical to nearly every other murder mystery. Yet what makes this typical story work so brilliantly are Ayckbourn's original and atypical characters, played to perfection by a flawless cast. Though he gets the least amount of material to work with, Jeff Mulligan gives a fine performance as Brinton, especially in any of his fantastically awkward scenes with the character of Wendy, a woman who happens to be Brinton's childhood crush. Lynn S. Beaver plays Jocelyn as a slightly neurotic and tight-wound matriarch who is barely able to keep her wacky family afloat. Thirteen-year-old Kelly Hamilton is impeccable as Amy, the hard-edged teen who punctuates every moment with eye-rolling and attitude. Austin directors, if you're ever in need of a talented young actress with strong comedic timing and boatloads of teenage angst, look no further than Ms. Hamilton. As Wendy Windwood, Linda Myers gets plenty of opportunities to showcase her comedic chops, and every moment is played to perfection. William Parcher clearly loves playing the bad guy. As Mortimer, he struts around the stage and taunts those around him much like a schoolyard bully, making it quite understandable why no one in his family would be broken-hearted to see him dead and making his performance one of the most memorable of the evening. But the true stand-out is Joseph Burg David as Norris, the insurance assessor/want-to-be detective. While David is a very handsome young man, he gets to nerd himself up here and gets dozens of moments for side-splitting physical comedy. He does just the right amount of scenery chewing without becoming so over-the-top that he'd belong in a different show. From the first few minutes in which he shakes rain off his clothes and wrings out his socks to the disgust of those around him, the audience is putty in David's hands.
In addition to an incredible cast, It Could be Any One of Us features a strong creative team. Director Frank Benge keeps the pacing brisk and ensures that the humor and quirkiness of the characters takes center stage. The costumes by Vivian Buchannan, particularly the geek-chic ensembles worn by David and the punk rock looks worn by Hamilton, are lots of fun, and the lighting by Eric Nelson is perfect. The set, by Benge and Nelson, deserves the most attention though. Benge and Nelson have turned the small and very limited stage of the Sam Bass Community Theatre into a fully realized sitting room which feels much larger and complete than it actually is. The two of them are skilled designers who clearly understand how to create stage magic through their work.
Though murder mysteries are a dime a dozen, mysteries this fun are not. It Could be Any One of Us is an absolute joy and a fantastic parody that pays reverence to the mystery genre as it simultaneously rips it to shreds with its witty script and flawless performances. This much fun should be deadly.