Farce a little too dark
It was a dark and stormy night. No, really, it was, as Rochester Repertory Theatre Friday opened its season with "Natural Causes" one of those British murder mysteries that take place at a country manor on a stormy night. in this case, the thunder was real enough, as a storm moved through the area during the play.
In any event, "Natural Causes" has a bit more darkness than might be expected from a farce.
Oh, on the surface there are good portions of laughs, and we're kept guessing until the final moments at the mystery of exactly which character will finally drink the poisonous potion. But in a cruel twist, the worst fate befalls the most enjoyable person in the entire show. The one character who consistently breathes life into this tired formula is the one who doesn't make it to the final curtain alive.
For forgiving audiences, of course, that's not a problem. After all, they get to enjoy this character (we're trying not to spoil the surprise by naming him or her) until nearly the very end of the show. But if one is of a mind to look for something deeper in the corners of British sitcom writer Eric Chappell's play, the resulting conclusions are mostly unsettling.
They are, fortunately, masked by the sedative effects of laughter. The story concerns Walter Bryce's attempts to have his wife commit suicide so that he can run off with his secretary. Enter Vincent, from an agency that helps people take their own lives, and Mrs. Withers, who is from an agency that tries to talk people out of taking their own lives. Naturally, there are the requisite mistaken identities, near misses, unsuccessful schemes and devious double-crosses.
Director Cheryl Frarck has cast this show well. As the craven Walter, Greg Strobl squirms and equivocates quite skillfully. Jeffrey Ryan is an absolute delight as Vincent, the forthright purveyor of death. Janine Hegarty is chilly as the coldly calculating secretary, while Karen Masbruch nicely plays a woman who is crazy like a fox. Christine Boos, meanwhile, is cheery as the true believer in over her head with this dastardly crowd.
A winning entry? Not entirely. There are stretches of somnolence here and there, and the final scene goes for a couple of plot twists too many. Still, you could do a lot worse on a dark and stormy night.