Murder Mystery Prank ‘Drop Dead!’ at the Newport Theater Arts Center is Frantic and Silly

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Cast of “Drop Dead”: (seated, left to right) John Vann, Mary Price Moore, Yvonne Robertson, Justine DeAngelo, Ian MacGregor. Standing, left to right: Paul Burt, Bobby D. Lux, Jon Korbonski, Jack Millis and MarcAntonio Murillo / photo by Charles Weinberg

By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special

The comedies that take us behind the scenes of a production wring out the laughter by showing us the difficulties of putting on a play. Most theatergoers would rightly consider “Noises Off” and the more recent “Curtains,” a hybrid of behind-the-scenes musical and murder mystery, to be among the best in the genre.

“Steep Dead!” was co-written by Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore in 1991. “Noises Off” had been around for nine years, already widely acclaimed, so “Drop Dead!” could have been its playwrights’ response, a tribute, or their attempt to replicate its brilliance and success.

If only the part-farce, part-murder mystery had been able to reach the goofy heights of “Noise Off,” the Newport Theater Arts Center would have been a huge hit. Alas, it would need a massive overhaul for it to even begin to look like the previous masterpiece.

Things begin with a now-familiar storyline: we watch the frantic efforts of a cast of comedians as they navigate their way through the final rehearsal of a new murder mystery called “Drop Dead!” it’s 24 hours from opening in “a seedy, underfunded, poorly staffed little theater somewhere in New York.”

Based on their struggles, it’s clear the troops are far from ready for an opening night. Director Gregory Cohen’s cast deliberately exaggerates the incompetence of the six actors as they are held back by dialogue, blocking, direction and props.

As such, we quickly realize that the “Drop Dead!” staged in “Drop Dead!” is a terrible disaster plagued by cringe-worthy amateur theatrics, missed cues, botched special effects and the like.

Victor Le Pewe (Jack Millis), a once-famous Broadway director, is now on the wane of his career; PG Banks (Paul Burt), the belligerent producer who spews insults at Le Pewe and his cast; and the play’s author, Alabama Miller (Ian MacGregor), whose Tennessee Williams-esque name indicates his artistic aspirations and attendant pretensions.

From left: Jon Korbonski, Justine DeAngelo and Bobby D. Lux in “Drop Dead” at the Newport Theater Arts Center / photo by Charles Weinberg

The one person above reproach is Phillip (MarcAntonio Murillo), Le Pewe’s stressed and overworked assistant who is selflessly determined to please those in charge and help the comedians by giving them whatever they need.

About a quarter of the way into NTAC’s staging, we understand that the game within the game is doomed. At this point, the show they’re putting on and the play that frames it drop dead, as Van Zandt and Milmore’s contrived script looks for ways to weave together its various elements into a plausible second act.

Just before intermission, and in much the same way as the later (and brighter) “Curtains”, a key character is murdered, an event that triggers a behind-the-scenes killing spree that boggles minds, rips nerves and traumatizes an already battered company dealing with an off-stage murder of the room they’re in.

This inventive thread goes some way to redeeming the evening – but not far enough.

In fairness to playwrights Van Zandt and Milmore, show biz parodies — at least, the praiseworthy ones — aren’t as easy to pull off as they seem. So that leaves Cohen, his cast, and NTAC’s creative team at a significant disadvantage.

It’s to their credit that they’ve acquitted themselves so well and are able to get things done even when the foundation of the play, its storyline, essentially leaves them to fend for themselves.

Jon Korbonski, Justine DeAngelo, Mary Price Moore, Yvonne Robertson, Bobby D. Lux and John Vann deftly sketch out the incredible ineptitude of the actors they play — first in final attire, then, on premiere night, as they react to a game that has turned into a sadly funny mess.

In another nod to “Noise Off,” we watch them do their best to improvise. The fact that this isn’t the strong point of any of them makes their plight all the funnier.

Korbonski’s Alexander once shone in the regional theater but his star is now tarnished. He’s hilariously unable to pronounce Penelope, the name of his leading lady’s character – DeAngelo, “a little porn star from Van Nuys” making her legit theater debut.

Moore’s Mona Monet is, like Alexander, a has-been oblivious to the fact that she is no longer the mega-star she once was. Robertson’s Mrs. Crawford’s spectacular incompetence stems from the fact that she is deaf as a stone.

Lux’s Dick Scorsese considers his role a side job, having only been hired because he is related to Martin Scorsese. The young Chaz de Vann, eager to please, exaggerates his roles as servant of the doomed room.

Millis’ Pewe heaps scorn and profanity on his cast, while Burt’s bellowing Banks is hilarious, rude and pompous. While this duo’s mutual impatience and dislike is laughable, it also tends to get annoying.

MacGregor and Murillo grapple with the show’s most thankless roles.

MacGregor’s playwright persona is an immortal aspiring writer’s hodgepodge, Buttinsky inserting himself into the production of his script and a third-rate actor hungry for stage time.

Murillo’s harassed assistant and stagehand is relentlessly loyal, devoted at all costs to calming the ever-enraged Le Pewe the better to keep “Drop Dead!” to drop dead.

To NTAC’s praise, its production is full of enjoyable details, and it’s great to see a show that bucks the Christmas-themed family programming you typically see at this time of year. .

Newport’s production is not only elegantly staged, but also beautiful – notably, the set design and stage art by Jim Huffman, and the costume designs by Tom Phillips and Larry Watts, which inject bright red into a slightly monochromatic color palette to highlight the themes of bloodshed, murder, and mayhem that run through the script.

In the minus column, “Drop Dead!” has one stubborn flaw: it’s just not particularly funny – at least not in the way that a good script generates and then sustains laughs from start to finish.

Yes, it’s wild and frenetic. Yes, much of it is unlikely and just plain silly. But really funny? Not by far.

Newport Theater Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Until December 11. Duration (including intermission): 1h40. 8 p.m. Thurs-Sat, 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $20 to $25. Ticket Purchase/Information: 949-631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.

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