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University Theatre at N.C. State’s TheatreFest 2005 opened May 26th with a rollicking rendition of The Butler Did It by Walter Marks and Peter Marks. This highly successful Off-Broadway comedy thriller, superbly staged for TheatreFest by director Terri L. Janney and assistant director Josh Parker, stars UT director of theater John C. McIlwee as down-on-his-luck producer/director/playwright Anthony J. Lefcourt. Lefcourt has high hopes that his latest whodunit, the-play-within-the-play The Butler Did It, will resuscitate his moribund career and result in a triumphant return to Broadway.
McIlwee, who doubles as the show’s costume designer (with Lisa Tireman), is a consummate comedian, with impeccable comic timing and a seemingly endless repertoire of funny facial expressions, mannerisms, and postures. He is also a master of the slow burn. McIlwee plays Tony Lefcourt as a fussbudget’s fussbudget. Lefcourt becomes increasingly desperate, because he has bankrolled The Butler Did It with his own money and simply cannot afford a flop, yet he cannot find the publicity “handle” that his press agent needs to give the show the notoriety it needs to do boffo box-office business.
In order to create the perfect whodunit — and a critic-proof comeback vehicle — Lefcourt plays mind games with his less than stellar cast of five has-beens and never-weres. For the five-character play-within-the-play The Butler Did It to hit on all cylinders, the audience has to believe that each of the four surviving characters had both motive and opportunity to murder the fifth.
For Walter Marks and Peter Marks’ comedy thriller to keep the ticketbuyers on the edge of their seats, the director and the five actors must all be equally suspect of plotting the premature demise of one of their number.
With John McIlwee doing yeoman’s work as producer/director/playwright-on-the-brink Tony Lefcourt, director Terri Janney deftly peels back layer after layer of this delicious comic onion, eliciting crisp comic characterizations from each member of the supporting cast.
With his right eyebrow arching melodramatically at just the right moments, Jim Sullivan is a hoot as former television star named Robert, who played a poor man’s version of Marcus Welby, M.D. years ago on the boob tube and now plays wealthy but depraved Raymond Butler in the play within the play. JoAnne Dickinson is a delight — an overendowed scene-stealer — as a superannuated ingénue named Natalie who plays Butler’s oversexed wife Angela with a deep but hilariously exaggerated ersatz moonlight-and-molasses-style Southern accent.
Meisha Gourley is silly and sweet and utterly charming as a fledgling actress name Claudia, whose role as Raymond Butler’s rebellious daughter Victoria is openly coveted by Natalie and whose amiable personality and youthful good looks prove irresistible to director Tony Lefcourt. Linh B. Schladweiler doubles as a tough Italian-American kid-turned-actor and inveterate ladies’ man named Michael, who plays Aldo, the Butlers’ butler-on-the-make, in the play within the play; and Robin Dorff provokes more bellylaughs with his pratfalls as a klutzy blacklisted actor named Sam, lately reduced to working as a waiter for his Aunt Florence’s catering business. Sam seizes the opportunity to play wacky mustachioed Detective Nigel Mumford, who unmasks the murderer in the final scene; but he has other, more powerful, secret motives for wanting to be in this cast: payback for the fellow cast member who got him blacklisted all those years ago.
Scenic designer Corky Pratt and set builder David Jensen have created a handsome rehearsal set — the living room of the Butler mansion — for the play within the play; costume designers John McIlwee and Lisa Tireman dress the show’s cast well and get a few extra laughs by outfitting Natalie in provocative outfits that show off her twin towers, and N.C. State students Stevan Dupor and Shane Roland make the most of their opportunity to serve as lighting designers for the first show of TheatreFest 2005.
With three decadent upper-crust characters named Butler and a real butler who doesn’t exactly act like a gentleman’s gentleman, The Butler Did It will keep the audience guessing — and guffawing — from the opening curtain until the final scene in which all is revealed. Don’t miss it!
University Theatre at N.C. State presents The Butler Did It Friday-Saturday, May 27-28, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 29, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday, June 1, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 4, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, June 8, at 8 p.m.; and Friday, June 10, at 8 p.m. in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. Individual tickets: $13 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $15 Friday-Saturday ($6 N.C. State students and $11 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $13 Friday-Saturday other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=BUTL. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/schedule.htm [inactive 2/08]. TheatreFest 2005 Postcard and Order Form: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/theatrefest/Brochure05.pdf [inactive 10/07].
The Butler Did It by Walter Marks and Peter Marks will open University Theatre at N.C. State’s TheatreFest 2005 on May 26th. Terri L. Janney will direct this fiendishly clever and diabolically funny 1995 comedy thriller that one critic characterized as the Off-Broadway equivalent of Deathtrap by Ira Levin.
In reviewing the original Off-Broadway production of The Butler Did It, the New York Post characterized the show as “lightheaded, lighthearted, and funny … a diversion of fun and mayhem”; The New York Times said the play contained “ample opportunity … for laughs and double-whammy thrills”; and the New York Daily News claimed that this offbeat thriller is “a genuinely amusing burlesque of those good old ‘30s movie thrillers in which the killer is unmasked in the final moments.””
Terri Janney recalls, “I actually worked on [The Butler Did It] as a lighting designer back in the early 1980s when Dr. Burton Russell directed it for the [University Theatre at N.C. State] ‘summer play.’ It was such a long time ago that I barely remember the play. However, the title kept coming up for discussion for the last several years, and I reread it and thought it would fit great in [this] summer season of TheatreFest.”
She adds, “[The Butler Did It] is a comedy thriller with a small cast and a great part begging for John C. McIlwee’s comic timing. And after the heavy Not About Nightingales [by Tennessee Williams], it is a nice break for me.”
When the curtain rises, Janney says, “Anthony J. Lefcourt (John McIlwee), the bigger-than-life director/playwright who’s fallen on hard times, has sunk his life savings into this Broadway Comeback of a ‘Whodunit?’ with a cast made up of a washed-up former TV star (Jim Sullivan), a mature bit player (JoAnne Dickenson) who wants the role of the up-and-coming young actress (Meischa Gorely), an Italian skirt chaser (Linh Schladweiler), and an actor who plays a waiter (Robin Dorff) most of his life.
“[The down-on-his-luck director/playwright] is willing to do anything to make the show,” Janney reveals. “During the final dress rehearsals, someone is going to get murdered.”
In addition to director Terri Janney, the show’s production team includes set designer Corky Pratt and set builder David Jensen, costume designers John McIlwee and Lisa Tireman, and lighting designers Stevan Dupor and Shane Roland. (Dupor and Roland are two of Janney’s students at NCSU.)
Working at a gallop presents some creative challenges for Janney and the show’s creative team. “Obviously,” she says, “the use of one set for three plays is a challenge itself, as well as the very fast pace of 18 rehearsals. The [main] challenge [of staging this particular play] is pace and comic timing and sustaining the believability of the farcical moments.”
Janney says, “The set is designed as a theatrical set in a theater, and the lighting will change from ‘stage lights’ to ‘work lights.’ The costumes should be fun since the play is set in the early 1980s.”
She adds, “[The Butler Did It] is just a fun play, and the audience should be prepared to laugh — [it is] perfect summer fare!”
University Theatre at N.C. State presents The Butler Did It Thursday-Saturday, May 26-28, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 29, at 3 p.m.; Wednesday, June 1, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, June 4, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday, June 8, at 8 p.m.; and Friday, June 10, at 8 p.m. in NCSU’s Thompson Theatre, corner of Dunn Ave. and Jensen Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina. Individual tickets: $13 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $15 Friday-Saturday ($6 N.C. State students and $11 Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday and $13 Friday-Saturday other students, seniors, and NCSU faculty and staff). 919/515-1100 or http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=22089&event_val=BUTL. University Theatre at N.C. State: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/theatrefest/schedule.htm [inactive 2/08]. TheatreFest 2005 Postcard and Order Form: http://www.ncsu.edu/theatre/0405/theatrefest/Brochure05.pdf [inactive 10/07].