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Deadly Stages

A backstage murder mystery in homage to films of the 1930's and 1940's and to the theater of Charles Busch.

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The cast of Marc Castle and Mark Finley’s “Deadly Stages” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Stephen Webster)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Marc Castle and Mark Findley’s Deadly Stages is an homage to the plays and acting roles of Charles Busch. Unfortunately, the new play is only second rate, missing what makes Busch’s plays work. In an attempt to write a parody of 1930’s and 1940’s back stage film murder mysteries like Murder at the Vanities, The Velvet Touch and Stage Fright, the authors have resorted to name dropping, camp and clichéd dialogue, things that Busch and the late Charles Ludlum avoided in their plays that pay homage to various film genres. As directed by Finley, the acting is both one-dimensional and hammy. While the play has its entertaining moments, it mostly looks like things we seen have before.

With the closing of her latest play, Broadway star legend Veronica Traymore is to lose her longtime dresser Miss Muldoon (Dooney) who is retiring. A one-named candidate called Phoebe (like “Hildegarde” or “Margo”) shows up looking to replace her (we never do learn her last name). Her only credit is having been assistant to the late actress Eve Harrington (shades of All About Eve and a clue to the plot). Complications occur when Veronica graciously accepts the role of the mother in Anthony Arlo’s terrific Sins of the Flesh, rather than the lead to support film star Rita Vernon, making her Broadway debut. However, when other murders take place in and around the production, it looks like someone is trying to eliminate the competition. Veronica has to deal with her divorce from her playboy husband Graham Sinclair, Rita’s not learning her lines, gossip columnist Connie Edison who is on the prowl for a story and a burgeoning romantic interest in playwright Tony Arlo.

Dani Marcus as Phoebe, Marc Castle as Veronica Traymore and Ellen Reilly as Barbara in Marc Castle and Mark Finley’s “Deadly Stages” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Stephen Webster)

Besides bitchy repartee, the dialogue is made up of such hoary phrases as “You can’t fire me, I have a run of the play contract,” “Then let’s go, Daddy-o,” “Lead on, Macduff,” “It’s like Grand Central Station in here!” Set in 1955, five years after the more sophisticated All About Eve which also has backstage infighting, the characters continually drop such theater names as Annabella, Cantinflas, Margo Gilmore, the Lunts, Antoinette Perry, Marilyn Miller, Laurette Taylor and Guy Lombardo, performers who used to be better known to the theatergoing public. Some in-jokes include references to Valerie Stanton, the accidental murderess played by Rosalind Russell in the backstage film mystery The Velvet Touch, and actress Vera Charles, Mame Dennis’ “bosom buddy” in Auntie Mame, another one of Russell’s vehicles. Aside from the black and white parody television commercials from the era, none of this gets the atmosphere of the fifties. The theater at which some of this takes place is New York’s Beaumont-Fletcher Theater, a combination of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre and the Elizabethan playwriting duo Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, not as popular as Shakespeare and Marlowe.

Playing Veronica Traymore in a flaming red wig, co-playwright Marc Castle certainly suggests Charles Busch’s onstage persona but lacks the nuance to make the character anything but one-dimensional. Castle mimics Busch’s gestures and mannerisms without getting the requisite audience reaction. The other actors all play several roles mostly changing accents rather than costumes but this seems more a stunt than versatility and allows for a great deal of overacting. Playing the dresser Dooney, agent Barbara Landis and film star Rita Vernon, Ellen Reilly only seems comfortable with the smooth and worldly Barbara, the other roles being highly exaggerated.

Dani Marcus as Phoebe, Rob Hancock as Graham  and Ellen Reilly as Dooney in Marc Castle and Mark Finley’s “Deadly Stages” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Stephen Webster)

As both Phoebe and Connie, Dani Marcus is rather bland as the former and over-the-top as the latter. Rob Hancock plays two roles from opposite ends of the spectrum: too British husband Graham and the male lead in The Sins of the Flesh Wade Elliott who sounds like a parody of Marlon Brando out of The Wild One and all the other beatniks of the period. Tom Galantich doesn’t make producer Marvin Maxwell, stage actor Frederic “Fritz” Farley and Detective Colletti any too different, playing all of them low-key and without salient characteristics. In the television interludes, Sean Chandler does a poor imitation of the more flamboyant pianist Liberace.

Considering several of the women’s roles are stars of stage or screen, Court Watson’s costumes do not suit the bill while the men’s outfits for the 1950’s are more successful. His set design with its red drapes for the entire play including the several dressing rooms, theater stages and duplex apartment scenes are suitable but unmemorable but allows the action to move swiftly though the play’s nine scenes. The lighting by Zach Pizza remains at a very bright level even when attempting to suggest mood or atmosphere. David Leeper who also plays the mild-mannered playwright Anthony Arlo is responsible for the successful television video parodies of the 1950’s which occur between the scenes.

Marc Castle as Veronica Traymore, Tom Galantich as Fritz, Rob Hancock as Wade, Ellen Reilly as Rita and David Leeper as Anthony Arlo in a scene from Marc Castle and Mark Finley’s “Deadly Stages” at Theatre Row (Photo credit: Stephen Webster)

While we could use a good murder mystery stage play, Deadly Stages is too derivative to suit the bill. The cast work hard mostly playing multiple roles, but the play seems to have attempted to outdo Charles Busch’s output without having the wit or the cleverness to bring it off. Although Deadly Stages has amusing moments, it is a tired retread of better and more subtle works in this genre.

Deadly Stages (through March 16, 2024)

Theatre 5 at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.bfany.org /theatre-row/shows/deadly-stages/

Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (972 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

2 Comments on Deadly Stages

  1. Avatar Gregory Ballard // February 28, 2024 at 11:12 pm // Reply

    This critic is so out if it. I went because I was invited by a friend who is a cast member. I, and the audience were laughing our heads off. It’s simple campy fun as it is described to be. This killjoy pompously goes on about Charles Ludlum and Charles Busch, they’re from the past, this show is current and is enjoyable on its own terms.

  2. You couldn’t have been more on the mark. I made many similar comments. And whoever says Charles Busch is from the past needs a little lesson in today’s theatre. Busch’s IBSEN’S GHOST is on the verge of opening across town. Be interesting to see if he can still bring it.

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