Whether or not you'll like Rupert Holmes' "Accomplice," which is both an analysis and a spoof of comedy thrillers, may depend on how you feel about Doug Henning as a magician. Before I explain what may seem an odd comparison, let me state immediately that I enjoyed "Accomplice" much more than I have ever enjoyed Doug Henning. But that is not saying very much.
Henning's work leaves me cold because he has no stage presence. He seems like a whiz kid who, using his Tinkertoys, devises great feats of legerdemain. But when the "tricks" actually occur and he just stands there grinning, all you think about is what the stagehands must have done. Not for a second do you imagine you've seen something magical. (People who do good card tricks with finesse impress me more.)
Similarly in "Accomplice" you can't help admiring the ingenuity and dexterity with which Holmes analyzes what makes "comedy thrillers" tick. Like those magicians who can fool you while pretending to explain their tricks, Holmes has his characters discuss their plans, discuss even the requirements of the genre as they go about their bizarre tasks.
He mentions, for example, that part of the game is to let the audience guess what you're going to do just before you do it. Holmes does that with aplomb. He also, of course, pulls many rabbits out of apparently empty hats.
But because he's so caught up in the mechanics of the game, because, as he showed in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," he has such a facility for quirky plot turns, he doesn't ever really deliver the genuine pleasures of the genre. Because the plot is so artificial, what happens never takes your breath away, the way "Deathtrap," which Holmes parodies, did.
For that to happen you'd have to care about the characters, and despite the admirable efforts of the actors, you never do. Each actor has to show several faces, and Michael McKean handles his various masks with authority and grace. Natalia Nogulich has a strong feeling for angular comedy, Pamela Brull is extremely funny as a dizzy blonde and Jason Alexander handles several comic assignments with his customary charm and skill.
David Jenkins' set is smashing, Alvin Colt's costumes wittily stylish, and the play's shifting moods are enhanced by Martin Aronstein's lighting. Art Wolff directs the comedy with precision and savvy, losing intensity only toward the end, when it is most needed.
"Accomplice" spends too much energy trying to fool the audience to be a satisfying play. It is the work of a sorcerer's apprentice, who has read the instructions but doesn't know that sorcery requires belief, not cynicism.
The difficulty about writing about mystery thrillers is that you can say very little about them. And how many times have I written that paragraph - or something very like it?
To give too much of the plot - indeed to give any of the salient facts - is dirty pool, tantamount to explaining a conjuror's tricks or a stuntman's derringdo. And, of course, tricks and stunts are the kyphoscoliotic (there's a twisted mystery word for you) backbone of Rupert Holmes' "Accomplice," which opened last night at the newly named Richard Rodgers Theater.
Ever since Anthony Shaffer's card-house of ingenuity "Sleuth" 20 years ago, the old Agatha Christie-style whodunit has given way to a more complex box of tricks in which finding exactly what is being done proves as important as who is actually doing it, although, even so, who the who is is likely to provide puzzlement.
The maze is meant to start when you enter the theater - the aficionado of the form studies his playbill with preternatural care, and here for example the alert can pick up a valuable, although not perhaps an immediately relevant, clue. Even if, in a way, it explains the whole thing - if such things can be held explicable.
What they must be held is enthralling, and certainly right up until the intermission, Holmes' magic mystery tour has our attention in a vise of sterling plastic. We know we are being manipulated, but we still need to know how.
Why is it set in England - for the sake of the scenery (nice old moorland cottage of a very rich vintage by David Jenkins), for example? Just to remind one of the very English provenance of the likes of "Sleuth" and "Corpse"? And why the mid-'70s? Surely not so that the author (and I fell for it) can make a deliberate chronological mistake about a stomach pill? You see, mysteries, all round.
I mean not just who is killing whom, but who is this who and who is that whom, and where the hell are they? And all the time, from the moment one Derek Taylor (yes, there might be another) enters his cottage frazzled and mixes himself a very large gin and very small tonic, noting the while that that is how plays like "Accomplice" usually start, not much is what it seems.
As one of Holmes' characters says: "I can't play the veneer unless I know the real wood underneath." Well here you never know the real wood, and sometimes even the veneer is misleading.
In fact the play rather falls to pieces after the intermission - I can't begin to tell you why - which is, however, why it is no real match for "Sleuth" or "Corpse" or even "Deathtrap."
Holmes (a musician whose earlier credits include the book, music and lyrics for the musical "The Mystery of Edwin Drood") has been too clever by half, and also forgotten that it is better to be tricked visually, as in "Sleuth" and "Corpse," rather than, as here, to be simply told one has been tricked.
But Holmes writes brightly, so the laughs might make up for the missing gasps. Even here perhaps too much of his humor is "inside theater," but at his best, such as a description of a "nouveau Beaujolais that is positively prepubescent - if it were any younger it would have seeds in it," he can be very funny. Art Wolff's direction is okay but never clearly lets the actors differentiate between the two styles demanded from them (to understand that you have to see the play) and the normally excellent Jason Alexander is, as a result, definitely sub-standard.
Natalia Nogulich has her happy moments as a general harpy, and Michael McKean is unambiguously excellent in a strictly ambiguous fashion. But then no man who co-scripted the ever-wonderful "This is Spinal Tap" and played David St. Hubbins, naturally winning, could fail to get away with murder. If he had to. Which perhaps he doesn't.
As a true genre piece, "Accomplice" is perhaps a little too generic, with more spills than thrills, yet it does have many good points, and audiences determined to connive at contrivance and suspending even their suspenders might find themselves willing accomplices to "Accomplice."
In Rupert Holmes's last Broadway whodunit, ''The Mystery of Edwin Drood,'' the audience was invited to vote on the murderer at the end of the second act. In ''Accomplice,'' Mr. Holmes's new whodunit at the Richard Rodgers Theater, the audience should be allowed to vote on the beginning, middle and end of the second act. The winner, in a landslide, would surely be None of the Above.
''Accomplice'' is one of those plays - like ''Sleuth,'' ''Deathtrap'' and ''Moose Murders,'' to name beloved past examples - at which the patrons must be sworn to secrecy lest the author's surprises be ruined for future customers. Those secrets are safe with me because I found ''Accomplice'' incomprehensible after intermission, even though much of Act II is given over to extended round-table discussions among the characters as to what has happened or might happen or won't happen or can't happen. These verbose yet unilluminating explanations extend right through the curtain call, which itself is somewhat gabbier than any denouement in Agatha Christie. Theater historians should note that the curtain call of ''Accomplice'' is additionally distinguished by the appearance of the playwright, who is given his very own bow and takes it with due modesty.
What the sepulchral Mr. Holmes, clad in a business suit, is doing on stage is one of those secrets indeed best left undivulged. Suffice it to say that the man is apparently prepared to travel the country with his play for eternity, as his script makes mandatory, should ''Accomplice'' find favor on the dinner-theater circuit. Some of the evening's other secrets are so poorly kept by the loose-lipped management that one doesn't even have to see the play to guess them: the Playbill gives no character names for its four cast members and includes more biographies for understudies than there ostensibly are roles.
It is also giving away nothing to say that the biggest shocks in ''Accomplice'' include some special effects unlikely to startle any theatergoer who has been within 50 yards of a Fourth of July sparkler. Further fireworks of a fashion are provided by a demographically balanced pair of homosexual kisses (one each for male and female couples) that may be becoming de rigueur on Broadway in the season of ''Aspects of Love.''
The kissers, none of them in top form under the overemphatic direction of Art Wolff, include two accomplished clowns, Jason Alexander, late of ''Jerome Robbins's Broadway,'' and Michael McKean, most fondly remembered from ''This Is Spinal Tap,'' and their routine foils, Natalia Nogulich and Pamela Brull. In Act I, the company dons fake-looking wigs and even faker accents to enact a reasonable though witless facsimile of the sort of West End thriller in which gin-sipping, cigarette-smoking Mayfair twits loll about an isolated weekend cottage (satirically designed by David Jenkins) and plot the murder of their own spouses or someone else's. The brittle repartee includes lines like ''Medwick may give me insomnia, but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it'' and, somewhat funnier in this context, ''You should go to the theater more often - there's life in it yet.'' In Act II, the wisecracks are largely about Broadway show business, with the inevitable butts being Los Angeles actors, backstage unions and Mandy Patinkin.
It's in Act II as well that Ms. Brull finds herself at the center of a dispute as to whether she will bare her breasts on stage. This pressing issue is tabled rather than resolved, but not before it has engendered more tedious debate than a resolution about fishing rights before the United Nations Security Council. For her part, Ms. Nogulich is required to writhe on the floor with Mr. McKean in an exceptionally noisy carnal romp. It's enough to make one long for those predictable old whodunits in which the butlers always did it but at least had the common courtesy to do it quickly with their clothes and mouths both firmly zippered shut.