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Deadly Stages

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 25, 2024

Rob Hancock, Marc Castle, and Ellen Reilly
Photo by Stephen Webster
Deadly Stages, Marc Castle and Mark Finley's genial comedy opening today at Theater Row, is a spoofy, affectionate homage to low-budget movie murder mysteries that might have been third on the bill at the local drive-in in the 1950s. And despite the production's somewhat ramshackle appearance, it is full of little surprises, inside jokes, catty repartee, and just-this-side-of-campy performances by a cast of Equity actors who make the entire enterprise a guilty pleasure of its own.

At the center of it all is aging Broadway star Veronica Traymore (Mr. Castle), whose current godawful play, of which we can hear the muffled drone of a long and clearly boring monolog from her dressing room, is about to close after a very brief run and unflattering reviews. The play is called Young and Deadly, and, as befits the depicted era of snide criticism and barbed gossipmongering, one review reads in part: "Though Miss Traymore is no longer young, the play is definitely deadly." We know what the review says because it is read aloud, a little too gleefully, by Veronica's soon-to-be ex-husband Graham (Rob Hancock). Meow!

Fortunately, opportunity knocks in the form of a new play proffered by successful playwright/director Anthony Arlo (David Leeper). But, unfortunately, the opportunity comes with a bitter pill to swallow, for our heroine is not being pegged for the lead role, but in a supporting one as the lead's mother. As you might imagine, this does not go over well with Veronica. To pile insult upon injury, the part she expected to get has been given to a Hollywood star with zero stage experience, one Rita Vernon (Ellen Reilly). Will Veronica accept? Will sparks fly? And more importantly, who will survive the ordeal? Literally. Because, well, read the first paragraph again, the part about "murder mysteries."

Oddly enough, and even as the bodies pile up, you'll figure out whodunit fairly early on; this is not The Mousetrap. The thing that makes Deadly Stages work, and what ultimately won me over, is that it avoids what it knows it cannot achieve–the perfection of a well-written farce. Whatever mayhem there is, it is of the quieter variety. And rather than basking in its own cleverness, it has set its sights on encouraging the audience to make connections with the inspirational material, to be in on the joke. You'll find yourself wondering about the characters' names, plot turns, and other little "Easter Eggs" that Castle and Finley have planted in the script and in grainy videos of 1950s-style TV programs that pop up during quick set changes. Even the show's printed Stagebill contains little jokes that you can hunt for at your leisure.

Under Mark Finley's direction, the cast of six, playing multiple roles and employing multiple and occasionally ludicrous accents, gives the whole enterprise a delightfully loose ensemble feel. One standout is Dani Marcus, who plays both a gossip columnist and an eager young would-be assistant to Veronica. You likely will notice the similarity of the latter character to someone from a rather famous 1950 movie to which Deadly Stages more than pays tribute. Also adroit at juggling several different roles is the versatile Tom Galantich. But the real star of the evening is Marc Castle as Veronica Traymore. His portrayal is neither high camp as you might expect nor silly as you might fear, just simply believable, and his performance keeps the play on an even keel and allows us to simply enjoy the fun ride down memory lane.

Deadly Stages
Through March 16, 2024
Theatre Row, Theatre Five
410 West 42nd Street New York, NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: