Think that sexy small-screen siren, Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. Better yet, think Clue the movie, if not the board game. Actually, think all of them! Then bring them together with Hercules — Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, not that Greek demigod (because that would just be silly) — and what you get is another cliché whodunit plot perpetuated by a dinner murder.
Yet cliché is just what local playwright Todd Wallinger sought in his play The Butler Did It!
Wallinger, 51, has been a playwright for 17 years, having published comedies like Long Tall Lester and The _urloined Letter as well as shorts for festivals, including the Millibo Art Theatre's 10 Minutes MAX. The Butler Did It! was published last year, and has already been produced throughout the U.S. and as far away as Australia. With this play, the former Indy and Gazette theater critic wanted to take an overused plot twist and scramble it.
"It's already kind of a cliché title," Wallinger admits, "but I wanted to play with that idea and flip it upside down. At the end of the first act, the murder is already pinned on the butler."
So goes the typical trope of the butler, an untrustworthy hired hand impudently murdering select dinner guests and leaving others to discover his malevolence late in the evening. Though Edgar Allan Poe is credited with inventing the detective fiction genre, Christie later perfected it, with a Crime Writers' Association poll last November naming her the best author of the field, and forever sealing all butlers' fates.
"I've always loved those old mysteries," Wallinger says. "This play kind of pays homage to those."
The setting is, as you might've already gathered, a dinner party at an English estate during the 1930s. A womanizer is found stabbed to death. This time, fingers are immediately pointed at the faithful-yet-totally-suspect butler, Jenkins, who is described in the cast notes as "unusually clever though he would be the last to admit it." Guests tie him to a chair and proceed to pile evidence against him.
Playing said suspect/victim is David Olson, a 67-year-old who's had a knack for acting since his high school days in Illinois and throughout a successful 20-year career in the military. "Even through my years in the military, it was always something I left simmering on the back burner," he says jovially by phone. When asked about his having to be the lead while tied to a chair, he says, "Acting, though typically done with movement, doesn't always require the actor to be moving."
And Jenkins is busy, trying to investigate the real source of the murder from his bound post. He finds help, albeit unknowingly, from one of the guests, Edwina Corry, the world's-greatest-mystery-writer-Agatha-Christie-type character, who has her own suspicions.
As convention demands, you'll have to see the play in person to find out just who the killer is. And, of course, to generally enjoy this love letter to the genre. "It's kind of a loving parody of the classic, cozy English mystery," Wallinger says, "with a twist."