Murder at the Howard Johnson's Serves Up Flavorful Fare

Also: Collin College kicks up heels with Li'l Abner and unfunny Nipples at Hub

Pocket Sandwich Theatre gets no respect. The only for-profit theater in Dallas, the charming but grungy playhouse tucked into a corner of a two-story shopping strip on Mockingbird Lane has been pumping out low-budget entertainment for more than 25 years. They do popcorn-tossing melodramas and cheap-to-produce comedies. Actors, directors and designers work there more for the experience than for the few dollars Pocket drops in their pockets.

Scads of local theater professionals sneer at the place and vow never to darken its doorway. But others are attracted to its casual atmosphere—food and drinks are served to the audience—and the chance to play roles in broad comedies. Actors Trista Wyly, Erik Knapp and David H.M. Lambert, stars of the Pocket's current three-person farce Murder at the Howard Johnson's, are members of an informal stock company of performers who appear often on this stage. These three, in particular, understand and expertly interpret the Pocket acting style: energetic physical shtick with just enough bawdiness to titillate and not offend.

Knowing Wyly is on the boards is reason enough to see anything at Pocket. She's been the main attraction in the theater's many B-movie-inspired spoofs, playing vampires, ponytailed gang molls, slutty cheerleaders, drug-crazed villains and brides of various Frankensteins. Wyly is a thoroughbred comedian, Zasu Pitts by way of Tracey Ullman. She is one of those brilliantly unselfconscious actresses willing to dye her hair, pad her ass or drip drool from the corner of her lips if it will get laughs. And then when she's not duded up like Frau Blücher, she's a pretty young thing—just never too pretty to take a pratfall when one is called for.

Trista Wyly gets in comically knotty situations (with Erik Knapp and David H.M. Lambert) in Pocket Sandwich Theatre's Murder at the Howard Johnson's.
Rodney Dobbs
Trista Wyly gets in comically knotty situations (with Erik Knapp and David H.M. Lambert) in Pocket Sandwich Theatre's Murder at the Howard Johnson's.

Details

Li'l Abner continues through March 9 at Collin College Theatre, Plano. Call 972-881-5100.

Murder at the Howard Johnson's continues through March 29 at Pocket Sandwich Theatre. Call 214-821-1860.

Nipples to the Windcontinues through March 22 at Hub Theatre. Call 972-239-6917.

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Plenty of stumbles, double-takes and other goofy shenanigans keep Wyly and her co-stars hustling in Murder at the Howard Johnson's, a bit of fluff that enjoyed a critically walloped four-night run on Broadway in 1979 before being launched forever after into the repertory of dinner theaters. The script by Sam Bobrick and Ron Clark offers three short acts, each set on a different holiday in a different room at a Howard Johnson's motor inn.

In the first act, Arlene Miller (Wyly) and her shlubby dentist/lover Mitchell Lavell (Knapp) have checked in at Christmastime to plot the bathtub drowning of her even shlubbier husband Paul (Lambert), a shady used-car dealer. That plan goes so awry that by the second act, on the Fourth of July, Arlene and Paul are planning the murder of Mitchell (using a Kenmore-brand handgun from Sears). New Year's Eve finds the two men preparing to do-in Arlene because she's driven them both to distraction by taking up with a New Age therapist.

The daffy physicality of the actors and some deft direction by Brad Dickinson help shore up the spindly play. Costumer Christina McGowan's outfits also lend a comic assist, visually defining nerds aspiring to urban sophistication. Mitchell brags to Arlene that "I'm a dentist! You know I could have any woman I want!" and the audience howls because as he says it, actor Erik Knapp is wearing a sport coat patterned with a plaid so loud it needs its own earmuffs.

 Wyly snaps and crackles as flaky Arlene. Flying around the motel room in a flimsy negligee, she's wacky-sexy. Her well-timed sight gags have her jamming a needle full of Novocain into the wrong victim's rear, and doing some strenuous under-the-bed humping. Later she pleads for her life as jilted husband and boyfriend drape a noose around her neck. "Any last words before we hang you?" they ask. "Yeah," she whines. "Don't hang me!"

 On paper that's just dumb. In person, Wyly makes it pants-peeing funny.

 And that's the secret of Pocket's success. Year after year, show after show, they make us laugh.

————

In a nice bit of theatrical synchronicity, there are jokes about Howard Johnson's 28 flavors of ice cream in the vintage musical Li'l Abner, now winding up a short run at Plano's Collin College Theatre. Like HoJos themselves, shows like this have nearly disappeared from the landscape. Old-style musicals are expensive, require dozens of singers and dancers, and need major rehearsal. Collin College can do this thanks to a healthy theater department budget, some super-talented student performers and director Brad Baker, head of the drama division, who is tops at putting on spectaculars.

 There's nothing li'l about Li'l Abner. Not since Lyric Stage's sweeping production of Carousel last fall has there been musical theater this lavishly produced on a local stage.

 Of course, Li'l Abner, based on the comic strip by Al Capp, isn't the classic that Carousel is. But it's darned cute. The score by Gene DePaul and the great Johnny Mercer adds some class to the cartoony book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, with songs such as the love theme "Namely You" and the lively "Jubilation T. Cornpone," which celebrates the giddy slothfulness of the hillbillies of Dogpatch, U.S.A.

Humor-wise, Li'l Abner might have been the Doonesbury of its day (with righter-leaning political views). In their hoot 'n' holler patois, Capp's rubes—muscular lunk Abner, his parents Mammy and Pappy Yokum, girlfriend Daisy Mae, and scores of others—commented on the foibles of government and changing social attitudes. A modest Broadway hit in the mid-1950s, the musical takes swipes at nuclear proliferation (Dogpatch is to be evacuated for a nuke test because Las Vegas has gone radioactive), modern kitchen conveniences, General Motors (represented by the character "General Bullmoose") and the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower was so a'feared of.

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