I love nothing more than a good curmudgeonly detective, whether Michael Kitchen’s Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, who provides a master class in the slow burn -- he often says nothing while his erstwhile suspects talk themselves in circles, or Helen Mirren’s tough-as-nails Jane Tennison from the original Prime Suspect, or really any version of Sherlock Holmes. A caper, some bad accents, a convincing red herring -- these staples of the mystery genre are melodramatic and fun, and are meant to be enjoyed thusly. The Red Box’s detective, Nero Wolfe, is crotchety, doesn’t leave his home much, and loves orchids. I’m in.
Nero Wolfe is the star of a long series of novels by Rex Stout that were published from the 1930s through the 1980s. Wolfe stories were also adapted into Hollywood movies in the ‘30s and radio plays in the ’50s, and have had a few brief flirtations with television, most recently in the early 2000s. The Red Box is based one of the earliest novels, originally published in 1936, and this adaptation was crafted for the stage by Joseph Goodrich.
In this caper, Nero Wolfe (played by the unflappable Scott Peterson) and his “boy-Friday” (the play’s words, not mine) Archie Goodwin (played by Andrew Robertson) try to discover the mysteries of a red leather box which will help them unravel a string of poisonings. In it, the Heiress Helen Frost (Laini Devin) works as a store “mannequin” for her close family friend Boyden McNair (Tom Monn), until another model is poisoned. This gives her ortho-cousin Lew Frost (Andrew Rosdail) the leverage he wants to try to get Helen out from under McNair’s thumb by hiring Nero and Archie to discover what happened. (An aside, marrying your cousin was still totally a thing in the 1930s, and Lew’s infatuation with Helen drives the plot.) I won’t go too much more into the plot for fear of spoiling it, but the ensemble cast of Helen’s mother and Uncle (Cadila and Dudley Frost, played by Lela Olson and Mike Brown, respectively), as well as scene-chewing Inspector Cramer (Kevin Christensen) and greasy Rene Gerbet (Jack Clauss) make for a well-balanced cast that keeps you guessing.
The script itself and many of its lines feel a bit dated. I attribute this to the thin characterization and agency of Helen (who is arguably the central figure of the caper), and a strange old-boys club feel that is neither quite rugged and charming unapologetic, nor completely ironic and self-aware. My favorite characters in this production are Robertson’s Archie Goodwin and Olson’s Calida Frost. Robertson clearly loves the hammy-yet-devoted Archie. Every time he gets the spotlight to himself for a bit of exposition, his charming smile and twinkling eyes make the audience feel like they too are in on the joke. Olson does a great job relating to the rest of the cast and helps build some of the night’s most suspenseful moments.
Design and Pacing:
Scenic Designer Robin McIntyre lavishes attention on the wood panelling of Nero’s office and adding windows that still only seem to let in so much light. Tufted leather abounds and one can almost smell the old books and cigars. Judy Kastelle puts Nero in the most fantastic teal suit and lurid floral dressing gown. These were my favorite pieces from the night because they showcase the way Nero likes to command a room. They stood out with striking contrast to the dark, imposing wood of the room.
Unfortunately, the show’s pacing leaves something to be desired--somehow, the hour and a half to two hour max show has become nearly two and a half hour. It is so easy to lose the correct pace, particularly in a piece that has a lot of unwieldy dialogue and moments that feel ripe for dramatic tension. Even cutting 30 minutes off of the runtime (easily achievable by cutting down or eliminating several drawn out silences and employing a more naturalistic, talking-over style of dialogue) would have made the whole experience more compelling.
Community Theatre at its best!
But despite these shortcomings, The Red Box reminded me how much I enjoy community theatre. After all, all the actors are volunteers and they do theatre because they love doing it. It’s this contagious love of theatre that brought me to lovely Hudson on a perfect Spring evening. I have fond memories of receiving carnations and awkward hugs from family members and friends who had no idea there was such a theatrical streak running though my soul. That moment, the recognition of talent and passion in someone you love for an activity outside of the everyday grind is what makes community theatre so compelling to watch. Hudson is lucky to have a cultural outlet like the Phipps!
If you think you can guess whodunit before they strike again, go check out The Red Box, playing at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson until June 17th.