Footlight Players

Sept. 6-8, 13-15 at 8 p.m.

Sept. 16 at 3 p.m.

$25, $22/seniors, $15/studentsFootlight Theatre

20 Queen St.(843) 722-4487

It’s obvious why Footlight chose Accomplice to open their season. The secretive play was written by Rupert Holmes, the guy who wrote the musical whodunit comedy, Curtains. He was also the musician responsible for “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” As expected from the prolific playwright with a silly streak, Accomplice’s intelligent script bristles with dry wit, spinning the British comic thriller genre on its head. It also contains enough smoking, bonking, and partial nudity to drag the Footlights into the 21st century. Since the company’s well-known for its British farces and thrillers, the fit should be perfect. Unfortunately, the production is not.

Most of the problems come in the worst place possible and that’s the first scene of the first act, when the audience is trying to get a handle on the situation and characters. Mike Ferrer makes an amusing entrance as Derek Taylor, a pompous bore who quickly gets sloshed on gin and tonics. His slurred speech is believable but hard to understand.

Some of Ferrer’s impenetrable dialogue can be blamed on a surfeit of spirit gum, sticking a false moustache to his stiff upper lip. The same can’t be said for Michaela Barno who’s also tough to decipher. She’s Derek’s sharp-tongued wife who’s prepared to do anything to get her own way — even if the audience isn’t sure what that is. For the duration of the first scene, the whodunit’s more of a whogarbledit.

The show picks up with the arrival of Patrick Ryan, who plays an effete Brit with an exaggerated, Pythonesque walk and facial expressions. Showing an immense flair for comedy, Ryan immediately gains the sympathy of the audience as a victimized husband who’s not as dim as he pretends.

Kate Stirling is also effective as a polyurethane brained blonde who acts as a foil for Ryan’s oddball. In lesser hands, Stirling’s bumbling role would slow the pace of the play; she invests her part with the right amount of pep and sincerity in a show full of insincere characters.

One of the real stars of this show is the set. As scripted, it’s designed to show a comfortable upper crust country home. It does much more than that. Scene designer Richard Heffner has included steps that lead down from the front door, a bar area, a working sink and a fireplace. Other, less obvious parts of the set are used to surprise the audience in Act Two. Heffner successfully suggests an exterior and a second floor with a few simple add-ons, and some of the decorations reflect the characters. A millstone hanging about the mantelpiece connotes an unwanted partner; a figurine hanging upside down symbolizes a fool — an intended victim, perhaps?

Once past the mangled first act, Holmes’ script crackles. There are references to well-known thrillers (Mouse Trap, Death Trap), soap operas and even dance instructor Arthur Murray. As every expected twist is turned, director Bill Stewart comes dangerously close to crossing the line between suspension of disbelief and playing things strictly for laughs. But thanks to the actors, we continue to care about the characters.

This uneven production isn’t as satisfying as Stewart’s 2006 Footlight plays (Inherit the Wind, Arsenic & Old Lace). However, the joyously sloppy feel is part and parcel of the play itself. It ends up being a farcical combination of exaggerated acting, clashing comedy styles, titillation, nonsense, and knowing jokes aimed straight at the target audience. There are plenty of bullseyes in the second act and Rupert Holmes would be proud — he wanted to achieve all of the above when he wrote this play.