The play fits the setting: all veneer determinedly cheery, and as sincere as the welcoming embrace of a game show host. Its name is "Murder at the Howard Johnson's," and it taxed the capacities of three accomplished farceurs - Tony Roberts, Bob Dishy and Joyce Van Patten - for 90 minutes or so, with intermission, last night at the Golden.
Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, the writers, are adept enough at turning out funny oneliners, and "Murder at the Howard Johnson's" has its fair share of jokes. But the jokes can't support the comic structure they've built, even slight as it is, for the duration of the evening. The trouble is, this is essentially a one-joke situation viewed from three angles.
In the first scene, taking place shortly before Christmas in a motel unit with green drapes and bedspread, Arlene Miller and her dentist lover, Mitchell Lavell, are awaiting the arrival of Arlene's husband, Paul, for whom they have devised an elaborate death. In the next scene, Paul and Arlene, now in an identical unit, except for the yellow curtains and coverlet, are celebrating the Fourth of July by lying in wait for Lavell, whom they are bent on killing. The second act is devoted, except for an obvious switch finish, to the New Year's Eve efforts of the two men to do away with Arlene in a red-appointed room.
Only the first scene is halfway amusing, partly because Dishy, who plays the husband, is the only true clown of the three, but equally so because the succeeding permutations become strained. The entire play might better have been reduced to a 10-minute television sketch.
The sense of strain necessarily extends to the actors. Dishy's patented character - the absurdly reasonable, slightly manic nice guy - is amusing for a while when he is the prospective victim obliging the obviously foolish conspirators by letting himself be tied to a chair, all the while telling his wife to get her things so they can go home. But there's just so far he can go with this situation, even with the funny lines he and Roberts have been given, and he is much less funny thereafter, when the worm has turned.
Dishy plays a used-car dealer, a sort of benign cheat and devoted husband. Roberts is the Millers' dentist, a commonplace soul who sees himself as a dashing lad. Van Patten is simply a dizzy blonde, and she is by far at the greatest disadvantage of the three.
Marshall W. Mason has staged this trifle as resourcefully as possible, ringing all the available comic changes out of the creaky plot. Karl Eigsti's set is a chillingly accurate reminder of all the geometrical sleeping units into which you've been slotted over the years, though the windows open in this one thanks to a second-act plot development. Sara Brook's costumes and Richard Nelson's lighting skillfully emphasize the cheap glare of the occasion.
There is not too much wrong with Murder at the Howard Johnson's, which opened at the John Golden Theater last night, but it will prove enough. Because there isn't too much right with it either.
The plot and the writing takes a mildly diverting idea and tries to make a short evening out of it. Were it on TV you might not necessarily switch the channel and were it a movie, particularly if it was raining outside, you probably wouldn't leave. But for a play, at Broadway prices, you need to have an almost indecently low threshold value for amusement to get your money's worth.
The play is set in three different rooms in a Howard Johnson Hotel, or Motor Inn, or whatever it is Mr. Johnson offers. The tacky setting, by Karl Eigsti, is uncomfortably accurate.
The first scene is set a week before Christmas. The second scene is set on the 4th of July, the third and final scene is set on New Year's Eve.
There are three characters. A used car salesman, his used wife, and their dentist, her lover. In the first scene the wife and the dentist plan to kill the salesman. In the second scene the wife and the salesman plan to kill the dentist. In the third scene the dentist and the salesman plan to kill the wife.
It would be unfair to give away the plot of this play by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, so I will not tell you whether any or all of these murder attempts succeed. Just guess - the tension is not that unbearable.
There are some funny things along the way, a few cute lines, or a decently absurd situation. And certainly it is not pretentious - indeed this is a play that is so unpretentious that it practically grovels with humility. But nothing adds up.
The problem with plays like Murder at the Howard Johnson's is that they are catering to a non-existent need. The source of empty-headed, vacant-hearted, mildly giggly entertainment has been absorbed by television. Such Broadway plays are now obsolete. Their function has been pre-empted by a miracle tube. In living color and with commercial breaks.
The director Marshall W. Mason did his best with the material, which was shabby-thin to start with. Joyce Van Patten seems dangerously uninteresting and unquestionable as the presumably interesting woman in question. I wouldn't risk a parking offense for her, let alone murder, or justifiable homicide.
Tony Roberts, as a dentist with a golden bridge too far, does his narcissistic, macho preening act with a familiar flair, but the real job of making some kind of brick outhouse without too much straw is really left to that brilliant comedian, Bob Dishy.
As the blundering husband he has so many of the play's few good lines that one wonders whether he made them up in rehearsal. He really is funny, both as victim and assailant. His indiarubber look of outrage, his pained sense of outer guilt, his deflated voice, and generally unrighteous sense of indignation provide the play with such center as it can muster.
How can one sum up Murder at the Howard Johnson's and remain fair to its perpetrators? It has a few laughs, is as undemanding as a paid account, and possesses the miraculous Dishy. And this is just about it.
Maybe the authors should have tried their luck with Ramada.
"Murder at the Howard Johnson's" comes in only three flavors; all of them vanilla.
The characters, two men and a woman, form what truly comes to seem an eternal triangle. In each of the play's three parts a different one briefly becomes the object of a murder attempt by the other two.
It does not betray much to say that the play ends with the triangle in pretty much the same shape as at the start. "Murder," which opened last night at the Golden Theater, is a comedy of suspense in the sense that after a fairly funny start the comedy is mainly suspended.
In the first section Arlene and her dentist and lover, Mitchell, attempt to murder her husband, Paul, who is a used-car salesman. In the second part Arlene, having discovered that Mitchell was unfaithful, brings Paul in to help her kill him. In the third section the two men join forces to try to rub out this middle-aged femme fatale.
The three episodes take place successively just before Christmas, on the Fourth of July and on the following New Year's Eve, and they are set in different rooms of the same motel whose design, by Karl Eigsti, flops between shrewd and wild caricature.
Like the rooms in the three episodes, the humor is pretty well interchangeable, with only the plot varying. The comic ideas of the authors, Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, sparkle some in the first scene, have a used look in the second, and are decidedly wilted in the third. The jokes have to walk an awfully long way.
The central character is Paul, played by Bob Dishy. Both the role and the performance have their points, especially the latter; but there is more than a suggestion of a debt to Woody Allen hanging over role and player, and as the play slows down foreclosure seems imminent.
Lured to the room by Arlene and Mitchell on the pretext that a deal is afoot involving stolen cars, he is informed dramatically that they love each other. "You mean no used cars?" he asks, a man with a single purpose. He is also, as Arlene petulantly points out, a man who has only gray suits in his closet; and Mitchell, played with comic enthusiasm by Tony Roberts, immediately calls attention to his own vari-colored outfits.
One of the central comic schemes is the infinite faculty both victim and would-be murderers display for being distracted. When Paul, tied to a chair, complains that his teeth hurt, Mitchell immediately peers in and announces that he needs a $1,200 dollar bridge job. They then fall into a discussion of whether they should order dinner brought up or go out.
This sort of thing is funny enough to nourish the first episode. Furthermore, both Mr. Dishy and Mr. Roberts are engaging and skillful; and Joyce Van Patten, who plays Arlene, is engaging if somewhat less skillful.
The trouble is that they have nothing much left for the second and third episodes other than to repeat themselves. The authors have created comic sketches, not comic characters and have given the performers nothing to renew themselves with. As the plot winds along it becomes less of a vehicle and more of a road, and a tiring one at that.
There is a cheerful sight-gag or two: the sudden construction of a scaffold in one of the motel rooms for the next attempted murder; The infinitesmally colored necktie that Mr. Dishy appears in, after renouncing his work ethic and deciding to live for pleasure. The authors have kept up the farce mood throughout, avoiding the temptation to supplement their limited supply of jokes with forced sentiment or forced suspense.
The talented Marshall W. Mason took over the direction of "Murder" at a late stage of preparation from the talented Paul Sills. It is impossible to guess what was gained or lost; the pace and staging we see are adequate but undistinguished.
All in all it is a case of three pleasant performers taking three or four pleasant jokes out for an evening; there's not much left for us.