Murder at the Howard Johnson’s: Funny Like Jimmy Carter

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s tries to be a nostalgic look back to the late 1970s when leisure suits, the sexual revolution and proto-New Age gurus were the thing, but as a relic actually written in 1979 and set in 1978 it never achieves the necessary distance needed for genuine reflection. People did a lot of very silly things in 1978 and people knew even at the time they were silly, but murder just wasn’t on that list for most. The underlying problem with the play is that the script seems as if it was written by Esalen escapees whose particular mode of self-expression was to attempt to write a bedroom farce.

I don’t have a lot of nostalgia for the 1970s. One of my more vivid recollections of the period was worrying about my brother’s number in the draft lottery for the Vietnam War. He didn’t have to go, but it was no laughing matter.

In three acts, various couplings of a romantic triangle between airheaded femme fatale Arlene Miller (Lara Hakeem), her husband the car salesman Paul Miller (Michael McAdam), and her lover — the family dentist Dr. Mitchell Lovell (Wayne Kneeland) — contemplate a series of murderous schemes. All three acts are set in the same room at a Howard Johnson’s motel, although months apart. That’s effectively the entire plot. (Oddly, in the original Broadway run, the three acts are each set in three different but presumably identically dressed rooms at the motel. Unsurprisingly, the disastrous Broadway run in 1979 closed four performances after opening night.)

My understanding is that 2nd Story Theatre sold out their first three performances – I attended the third and got the last available seat in the back row – and nearly everyone else in the audience seemed to think it was hilarious, but to me the entire effort seemed painfully unfunny, ridiculing characters trapped in the 1970s being laughed at by their contemporaries. The theater’s own website concedes that the play is no masterpiece: “Thank God it’s sandwiched between a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner, otherwise we’d never be able to show our faces in this town again!”

The play has the air of a 1970s television sitcom and probably could have been condensed to 20 minutes as an episode of Love, American Style or possibly an uncharacteristically dark episode of The Love Boat. I could not help thinking it is what might have resulted if the characters on Three’s Company decided to kill each other. At least the play has more laughs than second-wave feminism.

The acting is good enough to make this watchable but not to save it, playing characters with theatrical depth comparable to a Road Runner cartoon – demonstrating that what can be a comedic classic at two minutes does not survive being stretched to two hours. Does that coyote get his guns and gallows gear from Acme? The more over-the-top the character portrayed, the more opportunity there is for an actor to do something with the role, and McAdam in particular makes a valiant effort as the least noxiously dislikable of the three.

Admittedly, this show was well received by the audience around me so maybe I am just an outlier, but it may also be true that those who do not remember the 1970s are condemned to repeat them.

Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, directed by Ed Shea. 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St, Warren. In three acts with one intermission after the second act, about 2h. Through Mar. 12. Telephone: 401-247-4200 E-mail: boxoffice@2ndstorytheatre.com Web: 2ndstorytheatre.com/show/murder-howard-johnsons Facebook: facebook.com/2ndStoryTheatre

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