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FINE ACTORS GIVE LIFE TO MURDER MYSTERY

Theater review

Murder in Green Meadows ** 1/2 (out of four)

Continues through Nov. 14 in Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St. 856-5650.

Touted as a tense, psychological thriller, "Murder in Green Meadows" is not particularly tense, and the ice-block psychology of its main evildoer -- a homicidal suburban developer by the name of Thomas Devereaux -- is not particularly believable.

But Douglas Post's play does have enough of the requisite twists and turns of the standard murder mystery to keep the interest piqued. Here, spooky Gothic interiors are replaced by the beige, modernist space of a contemporary tract mansion duly appointed with various electronic amenities from microwave oven and cell phone to sleek, ice-dispensing refrigerator. Set designer Jeffrey D. Schneider had a mighty task and only partially succeeds in overcoming this instilled blandness.

The plot windings are aided by a number of curious little off-stage side stories -- the chief one being wife Joan Devereaux's habit of sleeping with any attractive male within her sexual radar and her husband's penchant for promptly killing them. The mainline convolutions devolve into the predictable body-in-the-bedroom, body-in-the-car-trunk stuff, with the murderer finally undone by that ancient plot ploy of the thriller: the misplaced key.

It's Studio Arena Theatre's quartet of fine actors and Gavin Cameron-Webb's well-paced direction that make this more than a humdrum theatrical entertainment, however. Ian Lithgow gives Thomas Devereaux an engaging, ironic glint that expands the inexplicable mentality of this peculiar character. Post never digs too deeply into this bizarre guy and leaves his psychosis pretty much hanging out there for us to try to fathom. In Lithgow's hands, Thomas is as creepily funny as he is psychologically frustrating. He delivers his comic lines dryly -- but not too dryly. He lends to a line recited in the horrible aftermath of brutal murder -- "Joan, I'm sorry you're taking this so badly" -- a black humor that quivers ever so slightly with real brutality.

Lauren Bone trimly renders Joan Devereaux as a cipher besotted by alcohol and sex who is emotionally enslaved to a husband who loves her the way someone else would love a compliant pet. She shapes a well-wrought woman-on-the-brink without pushing too hard on the high-pitched neurotic outbursts. I could do without the kisses, however, that come with smacking noises. And the one leg popping up in response to some invisible Pavlovian signal is a bad visual joke by now. But that's the small stuff, more the responsibility of director than actor. The big, anxious moments where it counts Bone handles well.

Buffalo actor Paul Tadoro is by now the past master of those bright, outward characters with collapsible backbones; he creates another delightful one here in Jeffrey Symons. Tadoro doesn't deal in flourishes, just constructs the false bravado and underlying weakness of this character by means of good, solid acting.

Todaro's apt and lively interpretation is perfectly balanced by the work of another excellent Buffalo actor, Kristen Kos. Her portrayal of Carolyn Symons, a brilliant woman who easily cuts through her husband's guff even as she tips toward mental instability, is a subtle characterization that offers emotional implications that go well beyond contrived dialogue (e.g., "Today," observes the self-analytical Carolyn, "I'm full of truisms -- little phrases to match my life").

Kos has shaken off most of her earlier mannerisms and has in this part let her on-stage intuition direct her gestures and intonations. In short, she is a far less prepackaged actor. This new surety and relaxation come at an important juncture in her career: her first appearance on the Studio Arena stage.

Joan and Carolyn, otherwise so different, share one thing: Both long for release from the suburban prison fashioned by their respective spouses. Bone and Kos use this strained affinity for some unstrained interplay between two adept performers. Early on, there is a fluidity among all four actors as they first work through their neighborly rituals. Then later, as the plot moves toward sex and the inevitable murder, Lithgow more and more emits his words with a menacing precision, while the other three (soon to be two) begin to split off from one another. It's all very effective.

Studio Arena is celebrating its 40th season, and "Murder in Green Meadows" is its 300th production. This historical moment might have been better celebrated. I'm not sure that four fine actors doing good work in a mediocre play is a way for Studio Arena to remain in the first rank of regional theaters.

email: rhuntington@buffnews.com

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