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‘Very Fine Use of a Grenade’ delivers on its promises

Mark Witteveen is already an acclaimed moviemaker, short subjects for the most part, but his full-length “The Soldiers of Breakfast” has earned him much praise.

He also writes for the stage, and many of his plays have gained honors at theater festivals and competitions across the nation, including Scott Behrend and Jon Elston’s always inventive, 10-year-old acting ensemble, Road Less Traveled Productions. Witteveen’s latest play, “Very Fine Use of a Grenade,” has been initially read and edited, polished, cast and deemed ready for its first bows, all at RLTP. “Grenade” debuted this past weekend. Doug Zschiegner – that’s CHEEG-ner – directs four fine actors: John Fredo, Kristen Tripp Kelley, Renee Landrigan and Greg Howze in this unusually constructed 90-minute mystery, one that promises, and delivers, “deception, seduction and murder.”

It all starts innocently enough. A movie company is on location in rural Indiana. The film is essentially finished – “in the can,” goes the jargon – but some tweaking was needed, something “organic,” some local color, Hoosier lore, that sort of thing. So a screenwriter was recruited – a hack, as it turns out – and tensions arise and egos clash. Soon there is violence, a crime, a cover-up, shifting loyalties and more. Add a supply of envy and ample Chianti and the mix goes toxic.

“Grenade’s” audience learns these things in bits and pieces because playwright Witteveen has told the story in reverse, over weeks, the conclusion first, the origin of all the trouble last. No spoiler alert is necessary here; I won’t disclose what happens, the why or to whom or the what for. This is one of those plays that can haunt, the pieces of the plot not fitting properly until you’re halfway to the car or over coffee the next day. Audiences must pay careful attention, rightly says director Zschiegner, who also designed the detailed motel room set.

The characters are not particularly likable: the affable, spineless overseer; the ill-at-ease, edgy director; the clueless scripter; and the sardonic and savvy motel housemaid . Too bad. Some redeeming traits would have been nice, but playwright Witteveen has chosen to highlight what he calls “the darker side of human interaction.” So be it.

Many famous stories have been told backward – Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” and Christopher Nolan’s early 21st-century, “neo-noir” movie, “Memento,” for example – so “Very Fine Use of a Grenade” is in fine company … and it works. The tale does end abruptly, an unnecessary mar.

There is excellent acting all around: Fredo is adept wherever found, whatever role, here as the gutless boss; Tripp Kelley shines in a change-of-pace role as the fragile director, Gabriela; Howze is solid as the imported screenwriter, Ben; and finally, petite, plotting and bizarre Landrigan, as dangerous, callous maid Lydia, privy to all sorts of odd local escapades the duped Ben found laughable, makes the night’s strange ingredients work. A bit more menacing and Harold Pinter would have been impressed.

theater review

3 stars

Starring: “Very Fine Use of a Grenade”

Where: Road Less Traveled Productions, 639 Main St.

When: Through Feb. 16

Tickets: $35 general, $17 students

Info: 629-3069 or