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Hollywood Fringe 2024 Review: In for a Penny

In for a Penny is an imaginative thriller in which a 21st century criminologist accidentally finds himself in 1888 Whitechapel on the trail of Jack the Ripper ((title is a reference to a potential victim’s nickname). The story rubs up against the usual time-travel conundrum (is it possible to change the past, and if so, what will be the consequences for the future?) without undermining in the protagonist’s quest – even if we fear it is hopeless. Even better, what could have been a historically predetermined outcome turns out to be a conclusion that is both unexpected and satisfying.

Lost on his way to the scene of a crime, forensic pathologist Dr. James Bryant (Thomas Fiscella) stumbles upon a mutilated body. From his unexpected surroundings and conditions of the corpse, he soon realizes the body is Mary Nichols, the first victim attributed to the serial killer known to history as “Jack the Ripper.” How Bryant got there is a mystery – he seems to have wandered through some kind of time portal. Seeing the lackadaisical efforts of London’s Victorian-era police, he decides to solve the crime. Stepping back and forth through the portal, he plots strategy in the present with his transgender assistant (Natalie Dressel) and attempts to intervene in the past by warning off the Ripper’s next victims. His efforts are stymied because he cannot reveal too much without either being dismissed as a kook or, worse yet, falling under suspicion. Unfortunately, he loses his portable recorder in the past, which falls into the murderous hands of Charles Cross (Jacob Sidney)…

Though we have good reason to question whether the rules of time and reality even allow Bryant a chance of success, In for a Penny pulls us into his quest and keeps us on the edge of our seat. The pacing is quick, and the performances are sharp, especially Sidney as Cross, who is creepy enough to be intimidating but smooth enough to get away with murder. Clever use of images projected on a screen behind the actors immerses us in the world and makes the scene changes clear, especially when transporting between past and present.

Thomas Fiscella as Dr Bryant (left). The setting is conveyed via images projected in the background. Photo: Haven Hartman-Briscoe

The script avoids bogging down in talk about time-travel paradoxes. In fact, it doesn’t even bother to state outright what it makes clear by implication: that time passes in equal measure on either side of the time portal: that is, if Bryant spends a week in his own time, a week will have passed when he returns to 19th century Whitechapel. Thus, In for a Penny silences needless questions about “Why didn’t Bryant just go back further in time and prevent Mary Nichols’ death?”

Along the way, there are a few Hitchcockian “ice box moments” that don’t ruin the story but do raise questions. Early on, Bryant delivers a slideshow lecture about how a victim’s corpse is waiting to tell the story of its death, providing clues that will lead to solving the murder; however, once he is in the past, Bryant makes little use of his forensic training to identify the Ripper, instead spending most of his time trying to talk prostitutes into getting off the streets. Also, his assistant is pointedly identified as transgender, but that plays no role in the story (there seems to be a missed opportunity to show how badly things might have fared for Cross had he targeted someone capable of defending herself). And as much as we loved the occasional snippets of comic relief dialogue, Bryant’s early joke about experimenting with a flux capacitor makes it initially sound as if his trip into the past is deliberate, leaving us confused about why he is confused to find himself in the 19th century.

In for a Penny review
Jacob Sidney as Charles Cross, real-life witness and (some say) suspect. Photo: Haven Hartman-Briscoe

In-depth knowledge of the real-life murders is not required, but it may throw extra light on certain aspects of the story. For instance, In for a Penny pegs Charles Cross as the man responsible for the Ripper murders. In real life, Charles Lechmere (who gave his name to the police as “Charles Cross,” using his stepfather’s surname) was a witness who never came under suspicion until amateur sleuths started conjuring theories from scant evidence over a century after his death. Although the case against the real-life Cross/Lechmere is thin, he was at the scene of the first murder, which is too good a dramatic opportunity to pass up, allowing protagonist and antagonist to meet almost immediately.

With a story apparently barreling toward inevitable failure, In for a Penny pulls a rabbit out of its hat, linking to another infamous historical atrocity in a way that feels dramatically justified – not just a cheap trick to provide a surprise ending.

Ultimately, In for a Penny celebrates dogged effort even in the face of odds that are not merely overwhelming but perhaps impossible. The final dialogue between Fiscella and Dressell is poignant as they sum up their succes and/or failure, ending the play on a note that is both tragic and hopeful – and leaving the door open for a sequel, which we hope to see…

Title of Event
4

Rating Scale

1 – Poor
2 – Mediocre
3 – Good
4 – Great
5 – Excellent

Clever and imaginative, In for a Penny navigates the pitfalls of time-travel to yield an engaging thriller with some amusing comic relief. Highly recommended.

In for a Penny concludes its 2024 Hollywood Fringe Festival run with a final performance on Saturday, June 29 at 7:30pm. The venue is The Broadwater (Black Box) at 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Get more information here.

Credits: Crystal Keith: producer, playwright. Jacob Sidney: director, producer. Christ Hutchings: production design. Run time: 60 mins.

Cast: Thomas Fiscella, Jacob Sidney, Natalie Dressel, Casey McKinnon, Guy Picot, Christal Keith.

NoteCoincidentally, In for a Penny was running at Hollywood Fringe Festival during the same time that the Count’s Den was presenting a revival of the “Jack the Ripper” episode of Mysterian’s Mysterious Mysteries. Read about it at the link below…

In for a Penny: Cast Photos

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.