The cast of The Land Whale Murders. Photo by Eric Micheal Pearson.
BOTTOM LINE: A fishy mystery comedy with a huge helping of stupid.
Okay, I know, mammal. Whale are mammals, but "a mammaly mystery comedy" doesn’t sound right. This play is about a land whale. Well kind of, it’s really about a murder and solving it involves a land whale (I regrettably can't reveal exactly what a land whale is without giving away part of the plot).
The Land Whale Murders takes place in 1896 New York. Teddy Roosevelt is the police commissioner and the whale oil trade is in full production. A group called “The Four Elementals” convene to discuss their passions for earth, sea, air and fire. At their meeting a noise is heard, resulting in the sea elemental's murder...by a fish. No, the fish doesn't commit the murder, but is instead the weapon, lodging in his chest like a dagger. A whodunit is unleashed.
Already it’s a bit jokey. Sometimes the comedy comes out of nowhere and doesn’t necessarily land. A certain degree of (mock) seriousness is assumed with the murder and all; this kind of comedy reminds me of The Naked Gun where the late Leslie Neilsen says very stupid things in a very serious matter. One character in particular, Eugene (Carl Howell), says a lot of these very stupid things. Eugene is the air elemental and he is obsessed with birds. He comes from a wealthy background, as all the members of the elementals do, and the only way he achieves success is when his dad writes a check. Eugene is hot to solve the case and as much as he earnestly tries, he goes off on a lot of tangents that are the result of a misunderstanding or his own stupidity. It’s tough watching a character not operate at the height of his presumed intelligence; sure Eugene is dumb, but he's still a functioning adult.
That isn’t to say that some of the characters aren’t funny. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt (Rich Hollman) is quite humorous with a reveal that gets big laughs. This is one over-the-top, scene-stealing character. But, he is also kind of stupid: specifically, in his exits. He has a tag line “Big Exit!” and then softly hops away. This would be fine, but he then goes on to comment on how silly he feels about it. I’d rather see him just make a silly exit in all sincerity -- the comment weakens the joke.
The other highly enjoyable character is Henry B Lubbins III (Nathaniel Kent). Lubbins is a whale oil tycoon who is annoyed by the investigation. Kent is very much alive as this character and while he doesn't have the funniest lines, he is highly entertaining. His commitment adds a lot to the play. To be fair, every character does have their moment to shine.This play is a work in progress and the comedy could be sharpened in future productions. The direction, by Tom Ridgely, is effective with minimalist staging. Amusing gags like old-timey act cards and a unique curtain call help flavor the sensibility. With some tweaks and a careful balance of stupid and smart humor, the play could be a very enjoyable experience. As for now, it's a silly show that hits as much as it misses.
(The Land Whale Murders plays at Theater 3, 311 West 43rd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, through December 18, 2010. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8PM. Tickets are $18 and are available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling 800.838.3006.)