Audience plays detective in murder mystery

Play honors Northside theater booster Michele Tully

Reviewed by David L. Schriber

It wasn’t your usual murder mystery stage play Sunday (June 19) at Centenary-Chenango Street United Methodist Church in Binghamton. In fact, most of this drama took place amongst the audience, seated at cabaret tables.

“Next of Kin,” directed by Foster Daniels Jr.,  was an improvisational audience-participation drama. Characters mingled with the audience, conversing with them and answering their probing questions. The audience was invited to get up, move around, interview suspects and examine evidence, in order to try to solve the mystery.

The plot revolved around “Big Daddy” Sugerbaker, a wealthy Southern patriarch who must decide which of his worthless, underhanded, crazy kin will inherit his vast estate. Would it be Rhett, his arrogant elder son, whose wife Scarlett comes from the wrong side of the tracks? Or Ashley, his weak and insipid younger son, a failed poet whose work is appreciated only by his wife, Melanie, an exotic dancer? What about Savannah, Big Daddy’s high-strung ex-wife (second wife, it turns out)? Then there’s Philomena, his bitter alcoholic sister, who’s spent time behind bars of more than one kind. What’s Big Daddy’s relationship with Bobbie Joe, the sweet young thing he rescued from homeless abandon to become his devoted nurse? And what’s the role of his lawyer, Beulah Busty Esq., and his physician, Dr. Chivago Kildare?

Things got dicey when Big Daddy was apparently poisoned to death in front of them all. Accusations flew literally from all sides of the room. You weren’t sure who to pay attention most to. You had to listen carefully for revealing clues in what was said, and keep your eye on certain props – the glass, the pills, the gloves — because there was more than one murder before this case was solved!

Some audience members were given walk-on bit-parts in the drama, speaking at Big Daddy’s eulogy. I myself had the distinct honor of speakin’ — in dialect, o’ course, — as John “Jack” Daniels – no relation to the director – whose family worked closely with Big Daddy’s whiskey business. The improvisational skills of the actors were challenged as they had to respond in character to anything the audience asked or said. For nearly two hours the audience was fully engaged as detectives. Throughout the drama the actors maintained high energy, their characters constantly bickering and tossing insults like any thoroughly dysfunctional family.

Versatile Mickey Ray (Rhett) spouted bombast, matched by Shirley Cothran’s (Savannah) melodramatic mourning. Ciano Briga (Ashley) and Julia Mahar (Melanie) played well off each other as the co-dependent couple. Bonnie DeForest was very convincing as the cranky lush, Philomena, but wouldn’t share the contents of her flask with us. Jean Graham-Otis (Bobbie Joe), Camille Muscatello (Beulah),and Foster Daniels Jr. (Chivago) each played coyly, leading you to wonder what secrets they might be hiding. Hilary Terboss (Scarlet) and Cothran even got into a very physical cat fight on the floor!

If you recognized in Susan Haley’s play the shadows of Agatha Christie’s 1939 “And Then There Were None” (also known as “Ten Little Indians”), made into a wonderful movie in 1945, the solution of the mystery was close at hand.

The show honored the memory of Michele Tully, founder and artistic director of the Centenary-Chenango Street Players, whose vision was to bring the arts to Northside Binghamton. In reprising the 2008 staging of “Next of Kin,” director Daniels  brought back several of the original cast, including Michele’s husband, William, who played Big Daddy with relish.

Daniels is a veteran of the Renaissance Revival Theater Company, SRO III and Theatricks by Starlight. He intends his new company, the New Reality Players, to promote new and little-known stage works and local playwrights.

“Next of Kin” is the perfect play for a small intimate theater where the audience can really feel absorbed into the drama. The fact that I’ve performed with three of the cast (DeForest, Daniels, and Ray) in a few musical productions (and met Muscatello two nights previous singing with the Relay for Life Singers at MacArthurPark) made the show especially fun for me.