Detective spoof brims with laughs. Two preposterous acts provide a catalog of whodunit gimmicks

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 Mystery farce written and directed by John Bishop. The Off Broadway silly season came early this year with the arrival of ``The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940.''

Author-director John Bishop has assembled as many ingredients of bygone mystery-comedy formulas as he could cram into a two-act format.

The results of the spoofery, in the Circle Repertory Company production, are always preposterous and sometimes antically funny.

``When the play opens, it is midnight ... naturally,'' notes the program. Outside the Chappaqua, N.Y., mansion which serves as the scene of the crimes, a blizzard howls and menace lurks.

Almost before you can say ``Nick Charles,'' menace has claimed the first of several victims.

Thereafter, ``The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940'' becomes a catalog of time-honored whodunit ploys and gimmicks.

The devices include revolving doors and subterranean passages, bodies in the closet, mistaken identities, an offshore Nazi submarine, a temperamental lighting system, and assorted weaponry.

The pretext for the midnight gathering is to audition a new musical for wealthy angel Elsa von Grossenknueten.

But the real objective is to identify ``the stage-door slasher'' suspected in the deaths of several girl dancers in a previous musical with which most of the assembled auditioners were associated.

Bishop peppers his dialogue with show-biz quips and jargon. At the preview I attended, the audience ate it up.

The Circle Rep players meet the author-director on his own terms with unflagging energy and hammy artifice. Whether alive or dead, the Chappaqua casuals demand the kind of ensemble effort they receive from (in alphabetical order) Michael Ayr, Dorothy Cantwell, Willie C. Carpenter, Kelly Connell, Pamela Dunlap, Ruby Holbrook, Lily Knight, Bobo Lewis, Richard Seff, and Nicholas Wyman.

David Potts provided the snowbound mansion (secret doors and all), with lighting by Mal Sturchio and Dennis Parichy, costumes by Jennifer von Mayrhauser, and cutlery uncredited.

John Beaufort covers New York theater for the Monitor.

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