Based on Screenplay by Jonathan Lynn
Written by Sandy Rustin
Additional Material by Hunter Foster & Eric Price
Based on Paramount Pictures film, Clue
Based on Hasbro Board Game, CLUE
San Francisco Playhouse
Six guests arrive at a New England, country mansion in 1954; and soon each receives from the host a plain-paper-wrapped gift – either a dagger, a wrench, a rope noose, a revolver, a lead pipe, or a silver candlestick. Anyone who once played board games as a kid knows of course that the six carry the names of Miss Scarlet, Mrs. Peacock, Mrs. White, Mr. Green, Professor Plum, and Colonel Mustard and that the mansion contains such rooms as a library, a study, and a conservatory with a secret passage to the lounge.
Originally conceived by a musician and his wife to pass time while nightly sheltering from the bombing of World War II London, the much-loved board game by Hasbro went on to become a 1985 Paramount Pictures film – now with a cult-like following – and a short-lived, 1997, Off-Broadway musical. In 2017, Sandy Ruskin took pieces of all these ventures and wrote the stage play Clue. It is this version of the popular, murder mystery game with its 216 possible endings of who killed whom, with what, and where that San Francisco Playhouse’s co-founder Susi Damilano inserts as the director 2160 (or more) silly shenanigans and stunts full of slapstick as a cast of veteran, Bay Area actors face mounting murders and an ever-murkier mystery.
As is obligatory for any juicy, murder mystery, our evening begins at night with a thunder-and-lightning storm that casts threatening shadows on the walls and many (!) doors of the old mansion laid out before us. Soon, each of the six guests – all strangers (or then, maybe not) – is received at the door by Wadsworth, the butler, who assigns to each of them one of the now-famous pseudonyms. They are led on a tour of the house, hearing that the Boddy Mansion is named for Lord Boddy “who is somebody who discovered an antibody that would save everybody” – just one of dozens of groaner puns that pepper the never-too-serious script.
After Wadsworth announces in paraphrased Holmes fashion, “The game will now be afoot,” the guests finally meet their host, Mr. Boddy. We and they discover that they all are Washington, D.C. residents who have been blackmailed for some time by Mr. Boddy for indiscretions that range from taking bribes for political favors to becoming a widow under suspicious circumstances to being a Republican Party bigwig in the closet who did not vote for Eisenhower. After presenting his guests their wrapped gifts of possible weapons, Mr. Boddy announces one of them must murder this very evening the butler, Wadsworth, who knows all their secrets and who has alerted the police to arrive in thirty minutes. Not doing so will mean that Boddy will greatly increase their blackmail payments. Before they can protest too much, all lights go out; and a shot is heard. As the lights reappear, the body of Boddy is on the floor with nobody taking claim of who did it (Will Springhorn, Jr. being the Boddy who will later reappear as various other bodies.)
And now the real fun begins, much to the credit of the wild and wacky direction of eleven-person ensemble by Susi Damilano . On a blank stage surrounded by seven doors, the six guests traipse through imaginary hallways, nooks, and crannies of this house of doom, often wandering together wide-eyed and open-mouthed as a roving amoeba or as a linked, inchworm. The timing of more lights out and thumps and bumps in the dark result in dead bodies beginning to collect that the guests-turned-sleuths need to hide away before the cops arrive.
The moving pieces of the board game that has come to life before us are an extraordinarily eclectic, eccentric collection of comedic oddballs. Colonel Mustard may have earned the medals on his uniform in some battle; but he did not do so because of his brains, with Michael Ray Wisely hilariously and vacuously often acting more ‘out to lunch’ than here at the mansion for dinner. Mrs. Peacock (a deliciously ditzy Stacy Ross) is a senator’s wife who declares piously that “my lips belong to the Lord,” the same lips being those that forever find their way to her ever-present flask. Michael Gene Sullivan is the pompous Professor Plum whose hands find the most curious spots to check the pulses of corpses and also seem to have no trouble finding the curvy parts of any female body near him (including the skimpily dressed, lightly prancing, and French-accented maid, Yvette played with pizzazz by Margherita Ventura).
Mrs. White (Renee Rogoff) is dressed in all black with a dour personality to match (“I’m rarely pleased to meet anyone”) and has a string of dead husbands that she defiantly dismisses any hint of her undoing their doings (declaring “husbands are like Kleenex … soft, strong, and disposable”). Courtney Walsh arrives as a sleekly, seductively dressed Miss Scarlet in evening wear the color of her name, while Greg Ayers is an olive-suited Mr. Green who seems always a bit jumpy and looking over his shoulder as if his self-imposed state of living in the closet may be tonight hiding more than just his homosexuality.
Playing a variety of oddball parts is Eiko Yamamoto, who first appears as the household’s cook that is always sharpening her kitchen knife with devilish delight. Jamiel St. Rose, among other roles, is a hired driver who unfortunately has car troubles on this stormy night outside this house of no return. Both join Will Springhorn, Jr. to become in the mystery’s climax a 1950’s version of the bumbling Keystone Cops of silent-film era.
Alice Ruiz dresses each guest in comical costumes to match their names (with the exception of Mrs. White’s funereal black attire) with Laundra Tyme’s wig designs humorously crowning characters like Mrs. Peacock and Miss Scarlett. Heather Kenyon’s set of many doors also opens at times to reveal rooms like the comfy lounge or the high-browed library. Those same doors also provide a challenge well-met in Susi Damilano’s directing prowess as the timing of doors opening and closing on opposite sides of the wall is always precise to the split-second throughout all the chases, hunts, and haunts of the rushing, running guests turned both detectives and suspects.
If the first seventy-five or so minutes were not enough for those desiring a ninety-minute, laugh-filled escape from the not-so-funny world we all are now experiencing, the last fifteen minutes in fact do provide a complete resolution to all the night’s many mysteries. But before we find out who did what to whom and where – and in this live game, also why – Dorian Lockett culminates an already splendid performance as Wadsworth the buttling butler with a tour de force sequence as he tries to unravel the mysteries by reenacting in fast-forward speed (with the cartoon-like help of all the guests) the entire evening’s comings and goings and all the undoing of persona no longer alive.
Admittedly, there are times when all the repeated silliness and slapstick begins to wear a bit thin as there is yet one more series of darts and dashes of rushing bodies across the stage or yet another group clumping of the guests that moves as one unit of gaping mouths, eyes stuck in open, and bodies pointing in every possible position. Yet sometimes it is fun just to laugh again and again while watching some of the Bay’s finest actors purposefully acting like complete fools. Susi Damilano has pulled out all stops of restraint and leaves unrevealed no verbal pun or visual stunt to direct San Francisco Playhouse’s rip-roaring whodunit of Clue.
Rating: 4.5 E
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
Clue continues through April 22, 2023, in production by San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photo Credits: Jessica Palopoli