Murder at the Howard Johnson's Serves Up Flavorful Fare

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.

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.

 And what to make of the "Yokumberry tonic" that kills men's attraction to women and turns them into preening bodybuilders?

 Collin College's production keeps all the old references intact and even revives a number that was cut from the Broadway version, the vampy "The Way to a Man's Heart," sung by villainous temptress Appassionata von Climax (played with full-throated oomph by Julie Mayer).

 The cast of 36 goes great guns on the choreography by Paula Morelan (clearly inspired by Michael Kidd's original moves). Nathan Beaudrie has the face of an angel and voice of a matinee idol as dim Abner. Kim Borge plays Daisy Mae in a style American Idol judges might call "pageant-y," but she sings nicely and looks mighty purty in that ragged miniskirt. Among the supporting characters, Vladimir Meyman, in an acid-green Zoot suit, casts the comic whammy as Evil Eye Fleagle. Professional actor Dane Hoffman joins the students as Marryin' Sam and almost steals the show in a couple of the snazzier production numbers, including the ironic "The Country's in the Very Best of Hands."

 Every minute busts wide open with youthful energy, and the audience eats it up. Li'l Abner works like a shot of theatrical B-12.


Nipples to the Wind has extended its run at the Hub Theatre. The two-woman comedy sketch show already has its own soundtrack CD, souvenir T-shirts and nightshirts, line of greeting cards, commemorative lapel pins and MySpace page. What it doesn't have is a good script.

 Pulling faces and wearing flowery muumuus doesn't make it funny. Funny words make it funny, and Nipples to the Wind doesn't have them. The ladies talk a pink streak, but their flat jokes about grocery store express lines, ill-fitting bras, old people and mothballs, Cosmo quizzes and Christmas newsletters are the stuff of acting class improv. It's all been done before and better in other comedy acts.

Nipples was written by cast member Paula Coco, who bears a striking resemblance to Vicar of Dibley diva Dawn French. Coco's a better actor than her co-star Janye Anderson, but all of her monologues run out of gas after the first few gags. And then the scenes continue for another 15 or 20 minutes.

 At 10:40 p.m., they bring out puppets.