British theater-goers apparently love Inspector Pratt. Playwright Peter Gordon has written three plays that feature the character and has a fourth one in the works. They've helped make Gordon, at least according to some sources, one of the most-produced playwrights in England.
Over here, though, Gordon and Pratt, his inept, malapropism-spouting detective, are largely unknown.
Island Players in Anna Maria have mounted a production of "Murdered to Death," the first play of Gordon's "Inspector Pratt" trilogy. It's appealing and amusing, but it's not likely to lead to its audience clamoring for more Pratt plays.
Director Heiko Knipfelberg has done a great job of casting this show. There are 10 roles, none of them unimportant, and there's not a bad performance in the bunch.
There's also a gorgeous set -- the parlor of an English Country house -- by Jan van Wart.
The plot is a send-up of the Agatha Christie formula. A group of aristocratic Brits, some of whom are not what they appear gather together, and when one is murdered, they all become suspects. A web of motives and subplots unfolds until the murderer's identity is revealed.
Nominally leading the investigation is Pratt, appealingly played here by Mark Shoemaker. He's modeled, a little too obviously, after Peter Sellers' Inspector Closeau from the "Pink Panther" films.
Among the other suspects and victims are Robin Rhodes as Miss Maple -- a take on Christie's Miss Marple, although she's even worse at solving crimes than Pratt is -- Steve Horowitz as Bunting, the hilariously deadpan butler with a taste for his employer's Napoleon Brandy, and Peter Ruscoe as Col. Craddock, the retired officer whose annoying stories turn out to be largely untrue. Rhodes is completely charming as the sweet spinster lady who seems to encounter murder whenever she's invited to dinner.
They're all engaging performances, and Shoemaker's a standout with comic timing and nearly perfect physical work.
Another great performance comes from young Lucas Piety, in his Island Players debut as Constable Tompkins, the apprentice who notices and interprets all the clues that Pratt misses -- which is all the clues.
Gordon's dialogue is full of delicious puns and dry one-liners. They come quickly, and it's impossible to catch them all. But even if you catch half of them, there are plenty of laughs.
But overall, the effect of the comedy is dulled by a lot of little problems. Gunshots that should have had a startling effect on the audience are barely audible, or at least barely recognizable as gun shots, so moments of potential power go by with little effect. On opening night, there were too many missed cues that led to long silences and noticeable confusion. An even though Piety's performance is wonderful, he should have done something about his hair. English constables in the 1930s simply did not wear ponytails.
Gordon could have helped by adding some real mystery to his mystery-comedy. But by the time the killer is identified, the silliness has overtaken the plot and the audience doesn't much care. Gordon also has a penchant for repeating the same gags over and over -- Pratt's mispronouncing of his people's names, for example -- to the point that they become annoying
So in the end, the Island Players' "Murdered to Death" (not to be confused with the similar spoof, Neil Simon's "Murder by Death") ends up being always amusing but never hilarious, interesting but never thrilling, entertaining but not exceptional.
Details: Through Oct. 18, Island Players, 10009 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20. Information: 941-778-5755, theislandplayers.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.