Saturday, June 03, 2017

Play: Serious Wimsey

Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers (and M. St. Claire Byrne, whom the program neglects to credit), Taproot Theatre Company, through June 24th.

The Lovely B and I recently removed ourselves from the safe bounds of Seattle Rep season tickets with an excursion to a new venue - the Taproot Theatre, north of the city on 85th Street in Greenwood. Situated at a confluence of major roads, it is one of those neighborhoods with a variety of restaurants and somewhat challenging parking (the e-tickets specifically state that, though it may look tempting, do NOT park in the Fred Meyers).

The Taproot is a 200-seat venue built around a thrust stage (that is, audience on three sides). This particular performance of Dorothy Sayers' mystery is very popular, such that we got tickets on the right-hand balcony, along a single row fronted by a low, extremely clear glass. Nice seats, good view of the action but I have a bit of crick in my neck from two and half hours of looking slightly to the right to follow the action.

Busman's Honeymoon was originally a play (one of Sayers' first) and later a novel (one of Sayers' last). It is set in Hertfordshire, where the newly-married detectives Lord Peter and Lady Harriet Vane have decamped for a honeymoon away from the bright lights of the press, with their loyal butler Bunter. They arrive at their newly-purchased cottage to find nothing prepared for them and the previous owner dead in the basement. The house is soon awash with typically British characters; the previous owner's mousy niece, the pottering vicar, the angry handyman, and the local constable (who actually says "What's all this, then" upon his entrance).

And Sayers/Byrne do an excellent job of the challenge of bringing the mystery genre to the stage. Sayers tends to play fair with her readers, and it shows here. The scene of the crime shows up early, and all the clues are in place to be discovered, including bits of business that seem innocent but later become revealing. If you've read the book, you'll know from the outset, but for those who have not, and those who have forgotten, I will leave it there.

But where the play succeeds is in the relationship of the newlyweds Peter and Harriet. Peter at his core is delighted to be married, but saddened by his very serious detective work, which will ultimately result in the destruction of the life of the guilty. Terry Edward Moore is a weary Wimsey, and you can see when he is positively delighted and when he is putting on the good show for others. With Harriet (a sparkling Alyson Scadron Branner) he has his strength, urging him onward, matching him pace for pace, but she comes from writing mysteries as opposed to solving them, and now she is yoked to that same sense of duty that drives Peter forward.

The rest of the cast is very good. Nolan Palmer is an arch-eyebrowed Bunter, settling into having a mistress as well as a master to tend to. The setting is Hertfordshire, but the accents of the locals span the the British Isles, and fortunately are carried forward with the vim and vigor of an island fragmented by a common language. Reginald Andre Jackson as Mr. Puffett the sweep digs in deep every time he has to talk about the "carroopted sut" clogging the chimney, while Brad Walker as Constable Sellon is a bit too young and slender to pull off the officer.

It is a good performance with good performers, and actually does a bit more digging into the characters than the 1940 movie (based on this play) which has the American Robert Montgomery as a very Mid-Atlantic Wimsey. In fact, I like the play more than the book that evolved out of it - the play is tighter, stronger, and uses the space to front the relationship of Harriet and Peter and to demonstrate that they are a match made for the courts.

One minor niggle, from the program book - Sayers is identified as a member of the Inklings, an Oxford group of writers that included Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, she was Oxfordian, and her letters are included with some of the Inklings at Wheaton College in Illinois but she was never a member. That's sort of like calling Ed Greenwood an Alliterate - while a fine writer with a shared heritage, he never officially part of the group.

As for the play - worth seeing, better than the movie and the book.

More later,