Looking for a “Merry, Mod, Madcap Murder Mystery”? Villa Thrilla, currently at the Atwater Village Theatre, offers a mystery wrapped in a play wrapped in a mystery.The result is either post-modern or self-reflexive – possibly both – harmonizing the beloved tropes of the genre with an overtly expressed awareness of those tropes, which runs like a counterpoint throughout the proceedings. Villa Thrilla is sometimes baffling – as a good mystery should be – but also lively and amusing.
The story begins on a dark and stormy night as a couple arrives outside the titular Villa Thrilla. The obnoxious Tony is apparently interested in buying the house from an old friend named Mickey, who currently calls himself Zachary, but who won’t be recognizable because he has had plastic surgery. Inside the Villa, we see a cast of eccentric British characters preparing for their guests. The setting suggests a 1920s drawing room mystery, but the music and costumes seem to fix the era in the 1960s; fortunately, the presence of cell phones proves we are in modern times, and we realize the villa’s inhabitants are “actors” in an interactive murder- mystery play, with the arriving couple as their audience.
Would that things were so simple! Villa Thrilla initially leaves its audience on shaky ground. Though the concept is clear, it is difficult to get a fix on exactly what is happening. We know that the play-within-a-play is not going according to plan, but since we never knew what the plan was, we cannot be sure how far off the rails it has gone. Are the occasional asides simply examples of the “actors” breaking character under difficult circumstances, or do some of them have their own hidden agendas? Who is the mysterious off-screen “Eddy,” who instructed the “actors” to persevere regardless of what went wrong? Are “Zachary” and “Mickey” really one and the same person, and what is his/their business with Tony?
The funny thing about Villa Thrilla is that its first act remains funny regardless of any confusion, which one might charitably interpret as a parody of overly convoluted mystery plots. By the time the second act rolls around, enough puzzle pieces have fallen into place clarify the outline of the mystery: as the “fake” murder gives way to a “real” one, the distinction between “fact” and “fiction” becomes more clearly defined. Mystery remains, but no longer confusion.
Playwright Anna Nicolas milks the reality-vs-illusion theme for obvious laughs but then adds unexpected twists. For instance, we expect and enjoy the sudden shifts when the “actors” drop their ’60s facades and speak in their real voices, but the truly hilarious punchline comes when the on-stage audience notices that the “Distinguished Ex-Soap Opera Star” sounds pretty much the same, in character and out (maybe he’s just not a very good actor, they wonder).
The wild card in all this is the character of Carolyn Jones (Giulia Davis), who may or may not be a member of the “audience.” Her black clothes and morbid remarks prompt one character to call her Morticia (the character played by real-life Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family TV series – get it?), but her disinterested attitude seems to be the affectation of someone pretending to stand removed from the events around her. She may not be involved in the play-within-a-play, but she is no mere observer either. So what is she?
These and other questions are answered in the archetypal explanation scene at the conclusion, which wraps up the multitude of threads into a very tight knot indeed, with an almost ostentatious flourish of virtuoso intricacy. Whether or not the explanation makes sense in terms of character motivation is really besides the point – drawing-room mysteries have always been about the details of whodunnit and how, not the complexities of human behavior.
Fortunately, the human behavior on view in Villa Thrilla is just as madcap and merry as the ad copy promises. The single set – a British drawing room, of course – is perfectly realized; lighting and a wisp of fog lend the appropriate atmosphere. Music cues (Christmas carols played on electric guitar) underline the comical contrast between the traditional setting and the “Mod” characters inhabiting it.
Really, the only egregious shortcoming is that, having raised the issue of whether or not a dreidel can be used as a murder weapon, Villa Thrilla dispatches its lone victim with a disappointingly mundane method. In a play whose dialogue notes that fingering an outside character as the murderer would violate traditional mystery plotting, it would be nice to have a character point out that, if you load a dreidel in the first act, you damn well better fire it in the third.
Credits: Written by Anna Nicholas. Directed by Gary Lee Reed. Cast: Steven Connor, Carolyn Crotty, Giulia Davis, Gregory Gifford Giles, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Leslie A. Jones, Ron Kologie, Danya Labelle, Andrew Villarreal, Brad Lee Wind. Doris Roberts as the Voice of Mrs. Thrilla.
Villa Thrilla runs through November 23, with its final performances on Friday and Saturday at 8pm and on Sundaysat 3pm. The Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets are $32. Click here for the website.