Studio Theatre founder and owner Jimmy Ferraro was beaming about 9:30 p.m. Friday as still-chuckling patrons filed past him for hugs and handshakes on their way out the door. Ferraro knew he had just opened a blockbuster hit at his small theater, and he was basking in the glow.
Indeed, the two-act comedy Murder at the Howard Johnson's is, arguably, the best executed and most enjoyable show that Ferraro's almost 2-year-old boutique theater in New Port Richey has presented, and the tiny theater has done some good ones. (I was in Cuba and missed the Christmas show, which at least one patron said was the best until this one.)
With three of the Tampa Bay area's most in-demand professional actors — Mary Kay Cyrus, Marc Sanders and Eric Misener — a smart and witty script by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick, a solid set by Keith Snyder, and impeccable direction by Ferraro himself, the show flows like a bubbly stream and satisfies like a bucket of hot chicken wings and a six-pack of cold beer on Super Bowl Sunday.
Only one complaint: the maddeningly distracting stage lights reflecting in windows of the HoJo motel room. There's gotta be a way to fix those.
But, really, that's small stuff compared to the joy of watching tip-top pros at work that doesn't seem like work at all.
The action takes place over three days in one year in a Howard Johnson's fifth-floor room. Arlene Miller (Cyrus) enters, wearing a 1980s vintage white mink, sits primly on the end of the bed, and waits. And waits. And waits, her patient, comic visage eliciting titters of anticipation from the audience. Then enters big, blustery Dr. Mitchell Lovell (Misener), obviously madly in love … with himself. And, oh yeah, with Arlene, too. After all, Dr. Lovell reasons, what woman could resist him? He's a dentist, for heaven's sake.
That's when crackerjack comedy worthy of Ken Ludwig, Noel Coward or Woody Allen starts flying, just one hotshot line topping another. Making it feel natural takes perfect timing, and Cyrus, Sanders and Misener have that down pat, nimbly letting the audience enjoy its laughter without losing the pace of the show.
It seems that Dr. Lovell and Arlene are lovers, never mind that Arlene's adoring husband, Paul (Sanders), has never done anything wrong — except shower Arlene with too many gifts and bore her to tears. Surely the adoring Paul deserves nothing less than death for these hideous, um, transgressions, right?
This doesn't sound funny, but, trust me, it is, every minute of it, right to the end, made more so by near flawless performances and zany physical humor with unexpected payoffs.
There's a surprise a minute, and that's what genuine humor is all about — the unexpected comeback, the twist in plot, the well-placed non sequitur, especially those uttered by Sanders' Paul Miller. Oh, what fun to watch all this and just forget about everything else for two wonderful hours.
Ferraro's theater was sold out on opening night, and I suspect all 68 patrons will be phoning their pals telling them to get tickets now, before they're all gone by the last show on March 6. That's what I'm doing.