CLEARWATER — From the moment the title character takes center stage, Mike Hammer — Encore for Murder is sold. Rarely does one actor own an entire production the way Gary Sandy owns this world premiere, and it's a pleasure at watch, in large measure through his mastery of space on the intimate Murray Theatre at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Sandy is best known for his role as station manager Andy Travis on WKRP in Cincinnati. He might seem an unlikely tough guy at 72, but one look at his compact frame in motion dispels any such doubts. This show blends many disparate elements, mostly to good effect. Mickey Spillane left but a single page to sketch out its plot, but writer Max Allan Collins faithfully fleshed out the rest, as he has some dozen other Spillane novels. Encore for Murder is the first of a trilogy of radio plays Ruth Eckerd CEO Zev Buffman is producing this year, in which Spillane would have turned 100.
It's a promising start, a loving tribute to a writer who never attained the status of a Dashiell Hammett or even an Erle Stanley Gardner, despite participation all round in a form of swaggering machismo that can hardly be uttered now without irony. Which is exactly where Encore excels — its frequent use of tongue-in-cheek, self-satirizing wit.
Before any of that unfolds, the show establishes itself as a radio play, with actors coming to work as the lights go up to take their place around microphones and tables carrying nearly 100 sound effects. Director Rich Rice nails the mood early as they clown around with horns and garbage cans and engage in horseplay. Foley artist Tony Brewer plays the early scenes like a maestro, channeling the creaks and bumps of Hammer's forlorn warehouse cubbyhole of an office and the hushed rattle of dishes in Sardi's with equal subtlety.
The real accomplishment, though, is that we don't focus on the sound effects so much here as in the opening scenes of most radio plays. That's because the actors, particularly Sandy, give us so much more to look at. Hammer is a man on a mission as always, his private-eye services out to the highest reasonably ethical bidder, which in this case includes both a theater owner and a mob capo he knew from way back, for different reasons. His first task is to look after Rita Vance, an aging Broadway star with whom he once had a fling, now making a comeback.
The chemistry comes back right away, with Sandy and Mary Rachel Dudley as Rita supplying the play's most elegant moments. That's not including their implied sex, which is communicated offstage in a casual, even tasteful, throwaway aside ("Oh, Mike …").
But Rita is in trouble, and even Hammer as her bodyguard can't save her from being kidnapped. Questionable characters abound, notably theater impresario Andrew Gold, played with a wonderful duplicity by Rand Smith, and Marie-Claude Tremblay as his ambitious protege, Jenna Rise. Throw in a nosy gossip columnist (Michele Young as Liz Barrett) and Jim Wicker as Pat Chambers, this installation of Hammer's oil-and-water alliance with the police department, and Bob Heitman as a cantankerous district attorney (among other roles by Heitman), and you have a potent brew of suspicion and mistrust.
Everyone, from the mobster Sal Ponti to that stuffy art collector (both played dextrously by Thom Jay) has a reason to want Rita out of the picture. And is it just a coincidence Jenna shines as her understudy?
An exquisitely moody jazz track, composed by Devin Rice, who happens to be the director's son, pulsates throughout, as more than 30 slightly abstract illustrations paint scenery on slides. But this is about Sandy and to some extent about Stephanie Roberts in a well articulated performance as his able sidekick, Velda Sterling. There are many surprises and there's no need to spoil them here. Opening night revealed only the slightest of line bobbles as they followed Sandy's lead and stayed mostly off book. Sandy delivers a virtuoso performance, miming many actions, killing lots of bad guys who get in his way and cracking wise. The show never takes itself too seriously, which only expands its merit.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.