Day 89: Murder at the Howard Johnson Play

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As I set off to watch this production at Joplin Little Theater, I mulled over what this play was going to be about. It was too gorgeous a spring day for a murder! I deliberately don’t read up on movies, plays or musicals before I watch so that I can enjoy the story as it unfolds. So I didn’t have any idea what this play was about. As this was the last performance today for this play, in Joplin, there will be spoilers contained in this post! If you don’t want details about Murder at the Howard Johnson, stop here.

Murder at the Howard Johnson is a two act play written by Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick. It first appeared on Broadway, for a short run, in 1979. The Joplin production was directed by Jade Nichols. The cast included Marilyn Marshal-Six as Arlene Miller, Richard H. Roberts as Dr. Mitchell Lovell and new comer Roscoe Miller as Paul Miller.

The story takes place in a hotel room at the Howard Johnson Inn, in the mid 1980’s. There are three scenes: Christmas Eve, 1984, 4th of July, 1985 and New Year’s Eve, 1985/86. I was immediately impressed with the way set changes were made. The room essentially stayed the same and between scenes, maids came into the room to add or remove decorations and furniture. The room number on the door was even changed each time. Clever indeed.

In the first act we are introduced to Arlene Miller who is in the room with her dentist lover, Mitchell Lovell. They are plotting the murder of Arlene’s used car salesman husband, Paul. What ensues is a light hearted, fast paced comedy in which the intended victim and the would-be murderers change with each scene. With all thoughts of this being a dark play banished, I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed the performance. This was a humorous look at a love triangle that became a snarled knot of intrigue when it came to who was going to kill whom.

Arlene, a woman of the 80’s who is learning to think for herself, finds she has grown apart from her unromantic husband. Paul feels love is best expressed by buying his wife unimaginative gifts while Arlene’s lover, Mitchell, is all about freely expressing his love in very physical ways. None of them quite gets it right and it takes mayhem and multiple attempts at murder to discover the true nature of love and friendship.

Marilyn Marshall-Six was exquisite as Arlene and captured her sexy, air-headed nature well. I’d seen Richard H. Roberts, who portrayed the lover, Mitchell, previously in Mousetrap. He has a rich, distinctive voice and a great sense of comedic timing. This was the first performance for Roscoe Miller, who played the cheated upon husband, Paul. In his bio, Roscoe noted that he auditioned for the part to show support for his daughter who has appeared in several JLT productions. He turned in a great first performance.

This was a very physical play, with sight gags and slapstick type humor and the actors handled it superbly. There was one hilarious “blooper”. When Arlene threw a glassful of water in Paul’s face, he reacted by immediately spitting a stream of water back at her. The actors dissolved into smiles and then laughter and had to turn away for a moment to regain composure. The audience loved this and showed their delight with loud laughter and applause.

The Murder at the Howard Johnson was a fun and relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And best of all, no one died. It wasn’t quite a fairytale ending, but all did live happily ever after.

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