Regional Reviews: New Jersey
A new, long-in-development stage version of the 1985 farcical, pseudo-scary movie based on the Parker Brothers (Hasbro) board game Clue, is receiving a lavish, over-the-top, anything for a laugh production at Paper Mill Playhouse. Herein an energetic, first-rate cast throws caution to the wind to entertain those who can put aside a lack of subtlety, logic, and character development with their slapstick, farcical comedy.
The setting is a large, imposing mansion isolated on a dark, mountainous road outside of Washington, D.C. Inside the mansion are Wadsworth, a butler who places himself in charge of the situation; Yvette, a sexy maid; and the cook. They are awaiting invitees who appear unaware of who has invited them and the reason for their invitation. Though the invitees are addressed by pseudonyms by the butler to protect their identities, it quickly becomes apparent that each has a prominent role in government, law, the military politics, or in the social life of prominent Washingtonians. Blackmail and murder are on the agenda of their host and blackmailer, Mr. Boddy.
The back stories and plot are overstuffed and confusing, but the actions of the characters are so ridiculously over the top that it is not difficult to evaluate the extent of the lack of logic on stage. The dialogue is loaded with groaner puns and plays on words ("I want a straight answer". Gay Man: "Not from me".)
Mark Price as Wadsworth provides a solid anchor for the exaggerated farcical tone of those surrounding him. Graham Stevens (Mr. Boddy and others) walks a line between farce and the play's faux dramatic moments. Isabelle McCalla is on target as a silly Yvette.
Donna English brings vibrancy to the seemingly evil Mrs. White. Sarah Hollis nicely embodies Miss Scarlet, whose name defines her. Kathy Fitzgerald is comically overblown as Mrs. Peacock, a batty corrupt politician's wife.
John Treacy Egan is convincing as the dense and self-important Colonel Mustard. Michael Kostroff brings an appealingly natural feel to the role of the womanizing Professor Plum. Alex Mandell is particularly winsome as the mild and self-deprecating Mr. Green. The appeal of the latter two performances suggests to me that a more subdued production might have worked better.
The highlight of Clue is the lavish, evocative, witty, and richly atmospheric set design of Lee Savage, staring with a framed view of the dark and foreboding Boddy Mansion and its environs surrounded by a visually striking rectangle of orange light. When this portrait disappears into the flies, we find ourselves inside a front entrance hall with gothic architectural accents. The details are rich and compelling, and include three balconies, seven chandeliers, and two sconces. As a seemingly endless number of mostly full stage size rooms–dining room, ballroom, conservatory, library, lounge, kitchen, billiard room and passageways among them–come at us in differing manners and directions, each is detailed and appears amazingly three dimensional.
Integral to the concept of this Clue is the considerable musical underscoring and music provided by Michael Holland who incorporates pre-existing pop and jazz into his musical palette. To the extent that there may be scary moments here, they are startles emanating from the underscoring. In the middle of the play, several of the evening's invitees and hosts decide to pair off and seek out others who may be in the mansion as well some missing weapons–or something to that effect. As they set off down a hallway, they break into some loose, jocular choreography set to the score. Then a fully choreographed danced divertissement breaks out. It is one of Clue's more enjoyable bits, and on the same anarchic page on which the entire creative team–under the guidance of director Casey Hushion and author-adaptor Sandy Rustin–has placed its bets. However, its lack of motivation left me scratching my head. The one-act production ran 75 minutes at the performance reviewed.
Clue, the 1985 movie adaptation of the board game, has taken an exceptional and circuitous journey to come to us on the venerable Paper Mill stage in play form in 2022. The movie was distributed initially with each theater receiving a print with one of three different endings (four were filmed), likely in the hope of generating discussion and repeat viewings. However, the movie was the recipient of tepid reviews and poor box office. In the ensuing years, it developed a considerable following via television showings and home video releases, each of which included the three disparate endings. In this form, following the A and B endings, both are relegated to speculation and C is presented as the accurate explanation of preceding events.
After two out of town tryouts, a stage musical version (book by Peter DiPietro, music by Galen Blum, Wayne Barker and Vinnie Martucci, lyrics by Tom Chiodo) was produced Off-Broadway in 1997. It has been described as an "interactive musical" as audience members draw cards in order to determine such things as the murderer, the room in which the murder was committed, and the weapon that was used. It claims 216 possible endings and dialogue to support each of them. It closed after a run of 21 performances. It has had subsequent productions largely in community theaters and schools.
In 2017, Hunter Foster directed a new version of Clue based on a screenplay by Jonathan Lynn with additional material by Foster, Sandy Rustin and Eric Price at the Bucks County Playhouse (PA). Foster again directed Clue at the Cape Playhouse (MA) in 2018.
By January 2021, playwright-actress Sandy Rustin had sufficiently revised Clue so that the credits for the Cleveland Playhouse production are based on the screenplay by Lynn, written by Rustin, additional material by Foster and Price. Ruskin has indicated that director Casey Hushion had shaped this new version with her. It is this version, with director and most of the cast intact and creative crew intact that is now on stage here.
Furthermore, the school version of Clue has become the most performed play by high school students in the country. And I can assure you from my personal contacts that Clue is genuinely delighting students (actors and audience), their parents, and school faculty.
Today, Clue has breached the doors of the Paper Mill Playhouse. Can Broadway be next? I wouldn't bet against it.
Clue runs through February 20, 2022, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. For tickets and information, call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.