The comedy The Butler Did It, playing through Nov. 20 at the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill, seems quite promising.
There's a clever play on words — all the suspects in the apparent murder are either named Butler or are actual butlers. There are nimble, unexpected plot twists. Playwrights Walter Marks and Peter Marks supply a few funny lines. And the six-member cast includes four of Stage West's most award-winning actors.
But even with all of this, the play falls flat, mainly because the lead actor failed to learn his lines; director David Stenger's blocking (the way the actors move around the stage) is, at best, clumsy, and the huge sofa in the middle of the relatively small stage hides a lot of the crucial action.
Most glaring is the hesitant, fumbling delivery by the usually outstanding actor Dalton Benson, who plays Anthony J. Lefcourt, a fading playwright/director of the play-within-the-play, who is desperately hoping to make a comeback. He concocts a scheme with his publicity agent to fake a murder of a cast member, hoping that the scandal will draw patrons for a long run of his show, just to watch all the "suspects" perform, even as detectives investigate the case behind the scenes.
Lefcourt is supposed to be masterful and manipulative, sure of his every move. Unfortunately, Benson's halting speech is anything but that and seems to throw the rest of the otherwise able cast for a loop as they wait for cues. At the most dramatic moment, Benson appears to be reading his lines straight off the pages he's carrying, and, even then, flounders for the next sentence.
Still, there are bright spots, most notably in the gifted Cheryl Roberts as aging actress Natalie, a cougar with a boyfriend half her age, who plays Angela Butler in the play-within-the-play. Roberts is a master of physical comedy and doesn't mind looking foolish, if it will enhance her character. She, deservedly, got the most enthusiastic applause in the otherwise tepid audience response to the whole thing.
The dependable Sam Petricone, an acting pro, did his best with the situation, playing Sam in the play and Detective Mumford in the play-within-the-play. Like Roberts and Ernie Rowland, who plays Robert/Raymond Butler, Petricone knows his lines, delivers them with conviction and keeps his cool as he waits, sometimes desperately, for Benson to deliver his next line. Stephanie Cooper as Claudia/Victoria Butler does her character as sweet and trusting, quite appropriate for the occasion. For some strange reason, she's the only cast member with a microphone, a large one that seems more suited to a rock show singer and was apparently turned off for at least half the show on opening night — and the audience could still hear her just fine.
Stage newcomer John Pridgen, as Michael/the Butler, seems a tad miscast, but shows signs of spark that will be available for his next role.
As in recent seasons, Stage West is tackling eight shows in eight or nine months this year, plus a holiday special, which may be overextending many of the players and crew members. That could be the problem here. But, make no doubt, this production does have problems.