In college, frat brothers Trevor, Perry, Garth, and Mark were known as the Four Musketeers of Sigma Pi, and since then—once every four years for the past twenty years—they’ve been reuniting to catch up on old times. There’s only one hitch. Trevor, Perry, and Garth can’t stand Mark’s guts, and wouldn’t mind at all if he dropped dead.

Playwright Gregory Blair takes these four 30somethings, places them and their significant others in a remote, snowbound mountain cabin on New Year’s Eve, and allows their wish to come true in Cold Lang Syne, an entertaining World Premiere holiday murder mystery thriller in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians.

Hosting this year’s event are Trevor (Douglas Myers) and his wife Aggy (Holly Montgomery-Webb), a couple who celebrate New Year’s Eve the way most people celebrate December 25. “I didn’t want his parents’ unsolved murder haunting Christmas any more than he did,” Aggy explains to Perry’s wife Leanne (Sandra Purpuro), sympathetic to Trevor and Aggy’s dilemma but all too willing to change the subject to her own marital woes.

As Leanne explains to Aggy, Perry (Mikhail Blokh) has been acting “distracted and strange” lately. “If I find him on the computer, he shuts everything down the minute I appear.” Leanne’s been hoarding pills, but not for herself. “Where’s the quid pro quo in killing myself?” she asks Aggy. “The pills would be for Perry.”

Next to arrive are Garth (Les Brandt) and his husband Denny (Dwight Turner), together for ten years, married in Massachusetts, and currently feeling the stress of their own set of problems. Something’s been bothering Garth, something “silently hovering in the background” that he won’t discuss with Denny. Meanwhile, Denny won’t tell his husband what’s behind a certain letter and “those phone calls and those unusual meetings” he’s been going to.

None of the three longtime college friends seems eager for Mark’s arrival, nor do their spouses. Perry even brought along a discount voodoo doll in an attempt to keep him away, though he’s made Garth promise to play nice, which Garth agrees to do “unless he starts any shit.”

Nothing can stop Mark (Michael Harris) from showing up, however, accompanied by the inevitable dim-bulb bimbo. Helen (Bobbi Berkmen), his current arm candy, can at least speak English, though she is rather absent minded to say the least. Realizing almost immediately that she has left her purse under the seat in the car, she hurries back out into the raging snow storm to retrieve it. Though Helen eventually comes back safe and sound, she’s visibly shaken, having spotted two eyes staring at her from under the house. “They were human!” Helen tells the assembled guests. “I’m sure of it! Wide and … horrible!” Since Mark has read about an escaped mental patient wandering the area, there’s reason to believe that the eight friends may well have an uninvited guest in (or under) their midst.

As the evening progresses, Mark proves his usual handsome, hateful self, throwing homophobic insults at Garth and Denny, though he manages to calm down once talk turns nostalgically to the pranks the four frat brothers used to pull, “like giving Bob Worthy his Nair bath” during rush week. It’s no wonder that a number of characters find themselves threatening Mark’s life. Perry: “I could kill him.” Leanne: “Oh, I could just kill him.” Garth: “I’m gonna fucking kill him.”

When the clock strikes nine, the assembled guests raise their champagne flutes in the first of four hourly toasts (“Four years, four toasts, four musketeers”), sip from their glasses, and one of them drops dead. (No need to guess who.)

From then on, it’s whodunit time, and if anyone reading this can guess the killer, you’re a lot cleverer than either this reviewer or his guest, though upon reflection, playwright Blair has adroitly placed clues along the way, clues which somehow managed to whoosh right by us.

As every writer of thrillers worth his salt, Blair knows how to throw in a red herring (or two or three) just to send his audience off sniffing in the wrong direction. He also knows that no play can be called a thriller without sufficient thrills, which he provides to shrieks of terror and delight. (Those New Year’s Eve balloons do sound an awful lot like gunshots when they pop without warning.) And it never hurts for the lights to go out to go out all of a sudden, casting the stage in near total darkness.

Under Douglas Green’s snappy direction, Cold Lang Syne zips along, bolstered by some terrific performances from a first-rate cast, with Purpuro a particular standout as the glamorous but self-doubting Leanne.

Scenic designer Mike Jespersen’s mountain cabin set is the best I’ve ever seen in a production at The Complex, highly realistic and carefully detailed. Lighting designer Maura McGuinness lights it for maximum dramatic effect. The uncredited sound design is first-rate as well, with many realistic effects. Costumes too receive no credit, but they are fine choices for each character. Jennifer Potell is production stage manager.

Only those demanding Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Ibsen could find serious fault with Cold Lang Syne. It knows that it’s a thriller, sets itself up cleverly, features believable characters, provides thrills and surprises aplenty, and ends in a way that makes complete sense and doesn’t leave its audience scratching their heads and trying to make heads or tails of a too-convoluted plot. Cold Lang Syne is the perfect holiday show for anyone who’d rather scream this Christmas than shed tears at Scrooge’s redemption—and as such arrives as a welcome December treat.

The Ruby Theatre at The Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd, Hollywood.–Steven Stanley
December 4. 2010

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