As much as I have enjoyed attending (and appearing in) Whittier Community Theatre productions, I must confess that I wasn’t expecting all that much from a little known murder mystery spoof entitled Any Number Can Die, written by a certain Fred Carmichael, author of over 40 plays even the most avid theatergoer has probably never heard of. Ever seen All The Better To Kill You With? Don’t Mention My Name? Exit The Body? Hey, Naked Lady? Meet My Husbands?  A Pack Of Rascals? Ten Nights In A Bar Room?  

Thought not.

Although none of Mr. Carmichael’s oeuvre is likely to ring a bell, Any Number Can Die turns out to be (surprise! surprise!) an absolutely hilarious and fiendishly clever takeoff on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians (aka And Then There Were None).

In the late 1920s, 10 complete strangers (or are they?) find themselves on a secluded island, trapped inside an abandoned mansion (Raven’s Head). One by one they fall victim to a evil killer and it’s up to a pair of sleuths to find the murderer, before he/she finds them.

On the island are  (in order of appearance,  and not necessarily of disappearance):

•Zenia (Elizabeth Lauritsen), a Haitian servant prone to utter dire predictions and warnings (“Beware the owl!”)

•Roger Masters (Tom Sandoval), the lawyer who has called the others together for the midnight reading of Uncle Cedric’s will

•Celia and TJ Lathrop (Andrea Stradling and Richard DeVicariis): Cedric’s sophisticated niece (and would-be heiress) and her husband, who has invested all his money in Arabian oil and lost. (Say what?)

•Edgars, the butler (John Warner Roberts), seemingly twin brother to the Addams Family’s Lurch

•Ernestine Wintergreen (Candy Beck), a prim and proper older lady somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple

•Sally VanViller (Trista Robinson), Cedric’s cute-but-ditzy younger niece, who has lived in Buenos Aires since her parents’ deaths at the age of three (her age, not theirs)

•Carter Forstman (William Crisp), a  man Sally met on the ocean voyage from Argentina who has declared his love for her

•Jack Regent (Steve Williams), a handsome young reporter who has come to cover the reading of the will

•Hannibal Hix (John Francis), a would-be sleuth in the classic tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Bulldog Drummond.

Not all of these characters are who they seem to be.

Any Number Can Die features blood-curdling screams, hooting owls, secret panels which open mysteriously, frequent blackouts, a grandfather’s clock which strikes 13, and a mysterious black-robed figure creeping through the dark and stormy night.  Characters hide behind curtains and in closets and appear from (and disappear into) secret passageways.

Much of the fun of Any Number Can Die comes from familiarity with the genre, which Carmichael spoofs with a knowing wink at the audience. In the play’s funniest scene, one of the characters admits to having accepted $10,000 from the killer in exchange for his/her silence. Hannibal Hix begs to hear the name of the killer, but the blackmailee won’t stop beating around the bush.  Just say the killer’s name! entreats Hix, who has read enough novels and seen enough movies to know that he/she is going to be shot dead soon, so stop dillydallying and just say the killer’s name! And on and on until a shot rings out and guess who dies with the name of the murder not yet on his/her lips?

Fledgling director Suzanne Frederickson has done a bang-up job her first time at bat. The production is skillfully blocked, pacing is swift, and the cast’s work is for the most part first rate.

As Sally, Robinson gives the evening’s standout performance, proving herself a superb comedienne in the Judy Holiday/Goldie Hawn tradition. Beck and Crisp, dueling attorneys in last season’s Night Of January 16th, do their usual fine work here, and nobody plays sophisticated better than Stradling.  Lauritsen and Roberts have fun with their spooky characters, as does DiVicariis with excitable TJ. Francis is funny indeed in the abovementioned confrontation scene. Sandoval does good work as the lawyer, and Williams is suitably dashing as Jack.

Regan Hunter’s set design is one of his best, a dilapidated cobweb-strewn mansion with secret panels galore, and the most out of tune piano on the face of the planet. Nora Hunter, Rene Tai, and Monica Francis have selected great 1920’s costumes for the cast, though Celia’s skintight evening dress is a bit more 50s than 20s.  Don Yeomans’ lighting adds to the mystery, suspense, and laughs.  Missing was some creepy/spooky music to fill the silence during scene changes. Also, no amplification would be better than the current echoey sound.

WCT, about to begin its 87th season, proves once again with Any Number Can Die that community theaters can compete quite well with so-called “professional” companies, thank you very much. No, this is not the Pasadena Playhouse or the Geffen, but for a mere $10 a ticket, you can’t find a better theatrical bargain in SoCal, and Any Number Can Die gets a WOW! for being such an unexpected delight.

The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave., Whittier.

–Steven Stanley
June 14, 2008

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