Murders and puzzles with a hint of comedy, light or dark, are a very specific genre, ranging from cinema to classics like Anthony Shaffer’s. Detective and Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins Sheila’s Lastin the 1970s, to newer offerings like those for 2019 Knives out. On stage, where Shaffer’s work began, there are also plenty of examples, some more successful than others in maintaining both suspense and laughter.
Will Osborne and Anthony Herrera aren’t very high end. Smoke and mirrors, now on stage at Florida Studio Theater’s Gompertz Theater. It says something about this piece that, although I’m sure I saw it when FST first produced it about 20 years ago, I have virtually no recollection of it. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just not very memorable.
The setup is good. Overbearing and selfish director Hamilton Orr (Ben Cherry) gathers his partners on a trashy but lucrative movie at a suitably secluded Mississippi Island beach house to talk about an upcoming sequel. They’re not exactly collegiate; the film’s star, Derek Coburn (Jack Gerhard), is a rude, conceited and stupid thug who likes teenage girls, and its writer, Clark Robinson (Alberto Bonilla), although not an offensive personality, had an affair with Hamilton’s wife, Barbara (Alanna Smith). So there’s a lot of bad blood here, and Orr is determined to exploit it for his own ends.
This means, apparently, colluding with Clark to kill Derek, so he can be replaced in the sequel with a much better actor. Persuading Clark to play along takes up much of Act I, but then, of course, twists ensue, bringing a country Columbo to the scene in the form of a “rube” sheriff (Justin Ness), whose questions are as infuriating as they are perhaps dangerous to the freedom of the plotters.
As is often the case with pieces like this, Smoke and mirrors engages our minds at first and then at the end, but it sometimes sags in the middle, even as the playwrights struggle to provide motives and surprise action. Under Catherine Randazzo’s direction, it’s all played out pretty broadly, but don’t expect to get any giggles out of it. It’s more about having fun guessing who really did what to whom, however unlikely.
Cherry is believable enough as a director accustomed to going his own way, to a point that elicits resentment. I didn’t find the relationship between Smith’s Barbara and Bonilla’s Clark as compelling, and sometimes Ness’ deliberate slow-wittedness as sheriff. Gerhard may be a little over the top as the despicable Derek, but his time on stage is more limited, while still giving us good reason to hate him.
If you find the August heatwaves quite boring at home, Smoke and mirrors can offer enough puzzles to draw you in. It runs through August 28 and tickets are available by calling (941) 366-9000 or visiting floridstudiotheatre.org.