SPRING HILL — If you're thinking of writing a play, you may want to avoid the title The Butler Did It. There are at least a half-dozen existing plays by that name in circulation, starting in the early 1900s, and yours would be just one more.
The phrase has been around so long, in fact, that it's become a cliche and is always good for a laugh. (One imaginative playwright named his play A Butler Did It, thus vaulting his play to the top of the alphabetical list of Butler-Did-It shows.)
To be clear, The Butler Did It that opens Thursday at the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse is the 1981 version by the Marks brothers, Walter and Peter, and it has mostly been well received across the country at professional and amateur theaters alike, if reviews and patron comments are to be trusted.
Set in 1983 New York City, it's a play within a play, as ambitious playwright/director Anthony Lefcourt (Dalton Benson, HAMI Award as Saunders in Lend Me a Tenor) gathers his cast to rehearse his latest creation. His play is a classic whodunit. But to keep his actors in character, Lefcourt refuses to tell them who will be the murder victim and who will be the murderer. That way, the actors will be honestly horrified when they discover the identities of both. Or, at least in Lefcourt's vivid imagination, they will be. And, who knows? Something terrifying may actually happen, giving Lefcourt's struggling play the publicity he desperately needs.
The confusion increases because three of the central characters in the play-within-the-play are all named Butler, assuring a good chance that a Butler did, indeed, do it.
There are Raymond Butler (Ernie Rowland, HAMI Award as Norman in On Golden Pond), a fading actor named Robert who once played a doctor on TV; Angela Butler (Cheryl Roberts, HAMI as Simone in A Bedfull of Foreigners), an aging actor named Natalie who is fighting her wrinkles and gray hair; their "play" daughter Victoria Butler (Stephanie Cooper, HAMI Award as Evelyn in Ragtime), an eager (and sometimes annoying) aspiring actor whose real name is Claudia; Aldo (John Pridgen, stage debut), the Butlers' butler, whose real name is Michael; and Detective Mumford (Sam Petricone, HAMI Award as Charlie in On Golden Pond), real name Sam, who, though he isn't named Butler or isn't even playing a butler, may be the perpetrator.
Hey, in a whodunit, everyone is suspect. (Even the murder weapon has a Butler connection — a hardcover copy of Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh.)
Theater insiders and aficionados may get a special kick out of all the backstage lingo, lessons and shenanigans sprinkled throughout the play. It's all designed to keep the audience guessing, right to the end.