The mystery play is a genre unto itself. It bears little similarity to mystery fiction, where the focus is on discovering which suspect committed the crime.
In a play like “Deathtrap” or one like “Art of Murder,” currently being presented by the Naples Players in their Tobye Studio, the action is all there to see — not much mystery about what the characters say and the movements they make — though one inevitably learns that what the characters appear to be doing often differs from what they were really doing. The fun comes from the twists and turns of plot, the construction of the play itself; from the amusing amorality of characters who matter-of-factly plan murder as a way out of their predicaments; from the clever dialogue that these superficial people toss out.
Of its kind, “Art of Murder” is a very good play. It has an interesting milieu — the world or artists and art dealers. Its plot devices, while outrageous, are surprising and — with one or two exceptions — within the level of credibility required for this kind of exercise. A couple of the characters are sufficiently obnoxious that one can sympathize with the desire to murder them.
Unfortunately the production falls flat. There is hardly a laugh all night, even though you can tell that the dialogue is supposed to be funny, and probably is when well-delivered. Mai Puccio brings to her role an engaging brittleness (although it does not seem possible that she could have been pregnant “a couple of years ago,” as the character says — given the casting hat line is a good candidate for cutting). Except for Ms. Puccio, the performances are unfocussed. The characters as a result lack charm. The direction is loose, actors meander, and the story arc is lost. Only the sets and costumes, as is virtually always true at the Sugden, are appropriate.
I know the Players can do better. I have seen it many times. Nonprofessional actors, with strong direction from someone with a clear sense of the style to be achieved, can provide entertaining evenings at the theater, sometimes very entertaining. The Players will do better next time.