“Accomplice” is more guessing game than thriller, a mystery that spoofs the genre but soft-pedals suspense. Slickly constructed by Edgar Award winner Rupert Holmes, it offers types rather than characters, and although much of the dialogue is amusing, promising plot developments are discarded just when they become truly interesting.
Since we’re not permitted emotional investment in the crimes or why they were committed, the show’s entertainment value relies on Holmes’ proven talent for inventing surprises. He knows the civilized-mystery genre, and he’s able to simulate a stiff-upper-lip Brit atmosphere. His sexually titillating twists, considered hot stuff in 1989 when the show premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse, are tamer in this man-loves-goat theatrical era, but stylish portrayals lend zip to backstage barbs and Noel Coward-ish witticisms.
J. Paul Boehmer appears as Derek, a “blinding bore” his wife is eager to polish off with poison. This turns out to be the first red herring in an evening packed with them, and the ensuing complications involve extramarital affairs, gay and lesbian intrigues, sadomasochistic/bondage rituals, a blonde bimbo who won’t take off her bra and a batch of attempted murders.
Integral participants include Larry Cedar, demonstrating a flair for humor both British and American, and Samantha Raddock, taking off on the Paris Hilton type. She brings obtuse cunning to her portrait of an egotistical non-actress in Cedar’s play, speaking her lines with comically illiterate conviction to the audience rather than to her co-star.
Paradoxically, the performers are so skilled that their efforts create an unexpected problem. We actually become involved in their chicanery and feel let down and betrayed when situations tail off or turn into jokes. Boehmer is stuffy, sexually ravenous and androgynous by turns, and the characters he creates are consistently colorful.
Lisa Pelikan isn’t afraid to layer her personalities with a tart, nasty edge. She’s at her best in a noisily sensual encounter under a blanket with Boehmer. When Cedar tells her he finds Carole Lombard, Vivien Leigh and Mae West attractive, she brings bite to the response, “I see … you like dead women.”
The idea of featuring characters as genuine in act one, then turning them into actors doing a play in act two, may have seem inspired in the writing, but it lets the air out of the show. We never take anything seriously again, and since no clues are provided that would enable the spectator to guess about fresh plot developments, it’s simply a question of waiting to see what events the script will devise next.
Some of the episodes — even the cleverest — are overextended. When Pelikan plans to poison Cedar and he stubbornly refuses to accept the drink she offers him, the bit is hilarious at first, until it keeps circling over the same ground. Fortunately, director Simon Levy has enough intuitive sense not to let the proceedings descend into hysteria or slapstick, and he stages a rousing, if convoluted, climax complete with electrocution and falling chandelier.
“Accomplice” has a final twist, making it one of the few plays to recruit a surprise acting guest — Barbara Beckley — who also happens to be the Colony’s artistic director. Beckley strides onstage with cool assurance and helps the wrap-up resolve effectively.