Blackmail, murder, and diabolical deceit were all in Rupert Holmes’s wicked toolkit when the Tony Award-winning playwright/composer premiered his latest mystery comedy thriller, Thumbs, 21 Octobers ago at Spirit Square.
Garnished with an electric knife, axes, and severed posable props, the script is as apt for the season as ever, studded with surprises. Whatever subsequent changes Holmes made to tailor his Hollywood protagonist for Kathie Lee Gifford in 2002 are far outpaced by changes to the Charlotte theatre scene.
Spirit Square is undergoing extensive renovations and will not be hosting any live theatre until at least 2025. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, which staged the premiere performances in October 2001, will be closing down forever at the end of this month, one day before Halloween, their sad obituaries already written.
Happily, the new edition of Thumbs from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway inaugurates a new theatre venue in Charlotte: the VAPA Center. Across North Tryon Street from the Charlotte Ballet Academy and the McColl Center, the new Visual and Performing Arts Center reopened on March 5 at the previous site of the Hal Marshall Building, a government HQ that began life as a Sears department store in 1949.
Sounds vast, doesn’t it? Along with such notable residents as Charlotte Comedy Theater, Gay Men’s Chorus and Women’s Choruses of Charlotte, JazzArts Charlotte, and the Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery; Charlotte’s Off-Broadway is one of a dozen founding member organizations.
We attended Thumbs on a Saturday night in mid-October, before an unfortunate COVID diagnosis within the cast put the run on hiatus. Shows will resume on Oct. 27, with new dates added through Nov. 5.
We found VAPA to be an artsy, modernistic, and bustling place with plenty of free parking. A friendly doorkeeper greeted us outside and asked whether we were there to see the improv from Charlotte Comedy or the play, which was far to our left, “around behind the dragon” at the rear of the spacious lobby.
To our right, down a rather long corridor, is Comedy Theater’s ample space — and the facility’s restrooms, so it’s a bit of a trek if you need to make a pit stop during Charlotte Off-Broadway’s intermission. You’ll definitely wish to return after the break, for Holmes thoughtfully inserts a cliffhanger midway through his thriller to entice us, and once again the COB workmanship is professional-grade.
An Agatha Christie aroma hangs over the opening minutes as we learn that Marta Dunhill, now an angelic TV personality after her Hollywood glory days, has been summoned to her ex-husband’s cozy Vermont retreat. Freddie Bradshaw, the ex, is coy about whether he penned the handwritten invitation but very open in his disdain for the glamorous wife who discarded him. To reverse his fortunes, Freddie claims to have written a tell-all book about Marta that will shatter her angelic public image.
Either through blackmail or the bestseller list, Frankie figures he will turn the woman he hates into a cash cow.
Heightening the air of menace, a radio voice tells us about the serial killer who is loose in the area. We’ll soon learn why a mere four murders, soon to be five, would be news as far away as Hollywood after a man enters the front door of the cabin wearing a ski mask and wielding an axe. Spoiler: it’s Freddie, and the former owner of this little house was the first victim of the “Tom Thumb murders,” which was why Freddie could buy the property so cheaply.
On the flipside, the truly un-angelic Marta has a trick or two up her sleeve — or her jumbo handbag. And she also has an accomplice: debonair tennis instructor Todd Monroe. Question is, with Marta’s track record, is this relationship any more solid than her marriage was? Doubts will creep in.
Mixing a shambling Columbo cunning with some Mayberry rusticity, Holmes makes local law enforcement officials — namely Sheriff Jane Morton and Deputy Wilton Dekes — our primary source of comedy. Little wonder, then, that Charlotte’s Off-Broadway founder and producer Anne Lambert has swooped in for the plummy role of Sheriff Jane; or that Mark Scarboro, who stole the show as Deputy Wilton 21 years ago, is back for an encore.
Deeply involved in COB’s development since he starred in Three Days of Rain in late 2017, Brian Lafontaine directs with a sure sense of comedy and thriller pacing, nicely gauging how hard his players should land on the many puns and jokes revolving around thumbs, while making clever use of the intimate COB black box space. Less than 60 seats for the audience, one door at each side of the set, no backstage, let’s roll.
We only occasionally get the sense of an invisible entourage surrounding Marta as Stephanie DiPaolo transports her Hollywood aura to Vermont. But if DiPaolo lacks a certain amount of privileged arrogance, she’s wonderful in reacting to all the difficulties that assail her. They come from all directions, friend and foe alike. We do take a certain amount of pleasure from Marta’s many trials.
Adam Donshik makes an auspicious splash as Freddie, able to consistently radiate malice, resentment, greed, and a cutting bitterness, which DiPaolo will occasionally deign to return. Jason Loughlin gets to show more contours as Todd, the tennis leech, for he not only phones in from the Left Coast, he also shows up at the Vermont cabin, suddenly very scruffy and out of his element. He will definitely regret coming, I’ll tell you that.
We haven’t seen Loughlin here since 2013, when he starred in the touring version of Lincoln Center’s marvelous War Horse. He’s quite at home in the QC, of course, having snagged a Perry Award as Best College Actor while attending UNC Charlotte in 2001.
Lambert has to shine brightly to fit in with this fine cast, or to compare favorably with Laura Depta’s memorably explosive portrayal of Sheriff Jane in the original ATC production. She does. Let’s say that this is a more balanced sheriff, a little more Andy and a little less Columbo. In his second pass at the role, Scarboro is noticeably mellower and autumnal as Deputy Wilton, but he’s still unmistakably goofball and irresistibly hilarious. This time, we’re more likely to remember the secret he reveals.
Back in 2001, in the wake of 9/11, Holmes struggled in an interview to explain why we might need to enjoy the folly of scaring ourselves with the laughable horrors of Thumbs. As the trauma of the COVID pandemic recedes, the answers seem more obvious. Holmes hasn’t written a deep psychological drama, but he ingeniously plots a work that contains two lawpersons confessing to multiple killings!
In the annals of law enforcement, that’s almost prophetic. And we have to offer kudos to anyone who could come up with a perfectly sensible reason for severing a murder victim’s thumbs.
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