Murder mysteries with an edge of comedy, light or dark, are a very specific genre, ranging on film from classics like Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth and Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins’ The Last of Sheila, back in the 1970s, to more recent offerings like 2019’s Knives Out. Onstage, where Shaffer’s work began, there are plenty of examples, too, some more successful than others at keeping both suspense and laughs coming.
Not at the very high end of the spectrum is Will Osborne and Anthony Herrera’s Smoke & Mirrors, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre. It says something about this play that, although I’m sure I saw it when FST first produced it about 20 years ago, I have virtually no recall of it. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just not very memorable.
The setup is fine. Domineering, egotistical director Hamilton Orr (Ben Cherry) is gathering his partners on a trashy but moneymaking film together in a suitably isolated Mississippi island beach house to talk about a coming sequel. They’re not exactly collegial; the film’s star, Derek Coburn (Jack Gerhard), is a crude, vain and stupid lout who likes teenage girls, and its writer, Clark Robinson (Alberto Bonilla), while not an offensive personality, has had an affair with Hamilton’s wife Barbara (Alanna Smith). So there’s bad blood aplenty here, and Orr’s determined to exploit it for his own purposes.
That means, ostensibly, conniving with Clark to kill Derek, so he can be replaced in the sequel by a much better actor. Persuading Clark to play along takes up much of Act I, but then, of course, twists and turns ensue, bringing a countrified Columbo to the scene in the form of a “rube” sheriff (Justin Ness), whose questions are as exasperating as they are possibly dangerous to the plotters’ freedom.
As is often the case with pieces like this one, Smoke & Mirrors engages our minds initially, and again at the end, but it sometimes sags in the middle, even as the playwrights work to provide surprise motives and actions. Under the direction of Catherine Randazzo, it’s all played pretty broadly, but don’t expect to get belly laughs out of it. It’s more about having some fun guessing who really did what to whom, however improbable.
Cherry is believable enough as a director used to getting his own way, to a point that fosters resentment. I didn’t find the relationship between Smith’s Barbara and Bonilla’s Clark as convincing, and sometimes Ness’s deliberate slow-wittedness as the sheriff is wearing. Gerhard may be a bit over the top as the despicable Derek, but his time onstage is more limited, while still giving us ample reason to hate him.
If you’re finding the dog days of August quite boring at home, Smoke & Mirrors may offer enough of a stage puzzle to draw you out. It runs through Aug. 28, and tickets are available by calling (941) 366-9000 or visiting floridstudiotheatre.org.